While no cases of COVID-19 have yet been confirmed in the Twin Ports, officials expect the new coronavirus to surface any day now.
"We are testing patients who qualify for testing," St. Luke's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nick Van Deelen said. "We do not have a confirmed positive yet in our region. But that will happen. It will happen, and people shouldn't be untowardly concerned about that. We expect it. We know it's going to be here. We are planning actively for it."
Dr. Jon Pryor, east market president for Essentia Health, said staff at his organization have been collaborating and coordinating with St. Luke's to create a "unified command" that can respond to the anticipated outbreak of COVID-19, including efforts to offer drive-through testing, should the coronavirus emerge and begin to rapidly spread throughout the region.
At a Friday morning press conference, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the city has been preparing for the arrival of the coronavirus for weeks.
"We are ready here in the city of Duluth, and we are here because it felt like it was important to report out in a collective manner for all of you and our public to hear from all these different entities at the same time to assure the community that we are working together," she said.
St. Luke's and Essentia are working on several fronts, according to Pryor, who said: "There's been a lot of concern about supplies, and you should know that we're developing a contingency plan for supplies should the disease spread in our service area."
Despite growing concerns, Duluth public schools have no immediate plans to close, ISD 709 Assistant Superintendent Jeff Horton said.
"I think the big question on people's minds is: 'What's going to happen if a school closes?' That's the question out there, and what I can tell you right now is, the Minnesota Department of Health and MDE (Minnesota Department of Education) are telling us that closing schools is not the decision being made right now, that schools will remain open. Will that change in the future? It might. And are we developing contingency plans if that were to happen? Absolutely," he said.
Horton acknowledged school closures would have wide ramifications beyond the classroom.
"We are talking with USDA (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and our childhood nutrition services team is talking about students who are on free and reduced lunch," he said. "If we do end up in a situation where schools are closed, how are we going to continue to help families survive and get what they need? We have great people in our community who are doing things to help with that, as well, and we want to do our part. So, we are having those conversations."
To avoid the spread of the virus, Pryor advised people to exercise social distancing — avoiding close contact with others by ideally maintaining a distance of 6 feet. He explained that at closer distances, airborne droplets can transport the infection from one individual to another.
A group of Duluth school officials dubbed the "district's COVID-19 team" has been meeting frequently to discuss the evolving threat of the coronavirus spreading. Horton said that team has been stressing the importance of good student hygiene and talking about how social distancing strategies might look in the classroom, in the cafeteria or at after-school activities.
Maintaining the recommended degree of separation also has been a challenge at CHUM's crowded homeless shelter in Duluth, said Lee Stuart, the organization's executive director. She noted that 105 people spent Thursday night in close quarters at the center.
"We also know that we're dealing with a vulnerable population, many of whom with underlying health conditions," she said, noting that many arrive at the shelter with a cough.
Stuart thanked St. Louis County for assigning a public health nurse liaison to work with CHUM to improve sanitation at its facility.
"We frankly have insufficient bathroom, shower, laundry and sleeping facilities to deal with the density of people we have now. But we have no intent at all to close our doors and tell people to go someplace else," Stuart said. Instead, shelter staff are doing what they can to reduce the risk of illness spreading by doing things like spacing out beds and arranging them in alternating directions head-to-toe.
If the coronavirus begins to take hold locally as anticipated, Amy Westbrook, director of St. Louis County's public health division, said: "We will have the responsibility of monitoring individuals who are in isolation or quarantine and making sure that they have the appropriate essential services that they need to get by or to stay in voluntary isolation or quarantine.
Pryor said the vast majority of people who contract the coronavirus will not require medical care.
"For many people, it's a very subtle disease, and that's partially responsible for why it's spreading and why it's so contagious, because some people don't even know they have it," he said.
"What's most important is that anyone who feels sick stays at home so they can recover. And if they've got symptoms consistent with COVID-19, such as shortness of breath, fever or a cough, that they go and get tested," Pryor said.
But local testing resources remain stretched thin at present, said Van Deelen. "So, what we're asking is that you access your primary care provider or you access our website where we have a series of aids that can assist you in determining whether you should even consider being tested."
"Remember, the vast majority of people with COVID-19 will have no or very mild disease. They should not go to a clinic, an urgent care or an emergency department. They should stay at home, stay 6 feet away from everybody else, drink water and take time off, and you'll get better," Van Deelen said.
He explained that testing should be reserved for those at high risk because of acute symptoms, a history of travel to an area where a COVID-19 outbreak has been documented or because of other underlying serious health conditions.
Van Deelen said St. Luke's will take steps to protect one of the most vulnerable portions of the community, namely its patients.
"We know that this is really a disease that is severe for the elderly and those who are ill. So just like nursing homes are restricting their visitation, we will be restricting visitation to the hospital," he said.
St. Luke's has imposed a work-related travel ban for its employees as well, Van Deelen said.
Pryor said medical staff at Essentia and St. Luke's recognize the importance of keeping the community informed and announced that they would begin providing "updates and guidance" via a weekly media conference.
"We do know that this COVID-19 virus will come here. But we think as long as we are working together with partners and planning ahead, we can have an experience more akin to some of the geographical locations that have done a good job at controlling the virus," Van Deelen said.
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