Speaking about coronavirus concerns are Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter (podium) and (l-r) Shelby County Health Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph; Martin Croce, MD, professor of surgery at UTHSC and chief medical officer at Regional One Health; and Nick Hysmith, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases at UTHSC and medical director of infection prevention at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

With concerns swirling about the likelihood of the coronavirus spreading, Shelby County medical community professionals held what amounted to a just-in-case, public-information press conference at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center late Wednesday evening.

Dr. Jon McCullers (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

“In light of the heightened interest and concern about the virus…we thought it was important to talk a little bit about what we see the local response being,” said Jon McCullers, senior executive associate dean of Clinical Affairs in the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center (UTHSC) College of Medicine, chair of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases, and pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

The “we” McCullers referenced included “partners around the region, hospitals and medical systems, as well as state and county health department.”

The media conference dovetailed with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirming the first possible case (in California) of the virus being contracted with no known cause in the United States. Earlier this week, word coming from the CDC was that a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. was “inevitable.”

And to that President Trump’s Wednesday press conference regarding the virus and the stage was set for the need to address local interest and concern.

Adding to the stock of protective gear, along with boosting the number of  rooms available to isolate patients in a manner to prevent the virus from spreading via ventilation systems, were among the measures and steps outlined locally.

Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter said a system of high-alert monitoring has been implemented.

“The public health role is complementary to healthcare systems. We’re generally not serving patients directly, but our role is multi-fold,” Haushalter said. “We receive information from all of the local hospitals and identify why people come into the emergency rooms.

“And we monitor that family to determine any other signs and symptoms …healthcare providers are mandated by the state to report to the health department if anyone is suspected of having the Coronavirus or confirmed to have it. And then, we make sure that family is properly monitored or quarantined.”

Haushalter identified three stages of containment for individuals or households suspected of having the virus, or confirmed:

  • Self-monitoring, or alertness in watching for signs and symptoms of the virus;
  • Quarantine, which is used when a person has traveled to an area where an outbreak has occurred and possibly been exposed to the virus;
  • Isolation for individuals showing actual signs and symptoms of the disease.

“When I was first called this afternoon and asked if we wanted to take part in the press conference, I said ‘no’ initially, because we normally don’t hold a press conference until the first case has actually been identified in Shelby County,” Haushalter said. “But then I thought that this is really a good idea to speak out before a case is confirmed.”

The Associated Press reports more than 81,000 worldwide cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which is characterized by fever and coughing and in serious cases shortness of breath or pneumonia, have occurred since the new virus emerged in China.

The newest case from California brings the total number infected in the U.S. to 60, most of them evacuated from outbreak zones.

Some 80 percent of those carrying the virus will show no symptoms, McCullers said. But those individuals are less likely to spread the virus because there is no coughing or sneezing. As in other pandemic or widespread diseases, infants, children and seniors are the most vulnerable.

The virus has now been confirmed in 37 countries.

At Wednesday’s local media briefing, a website was announced, with it expected to be ready by Friday. It will be sponsored by UT, which will answer frequently asked questions and provide around-the-clock updates on any local and regional concerns.

In addition to monitoring and reporting any suspected cases of the coronavirus, McCullers noted the research being conducted by the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Lab.

“Our Regional Biocontainment Lab is one of 14 labs in the country conducting biodefensive research for this virus,” he said. “These labs are all funded by the National Institute of Health. Our research will be contributing to the national and international response to the virus.”