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Long Island Jewish Valley Stream develops protocols for new strain of coronavirus

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Nearly 100 people died from a new strain of the coronavirus on Feb. 11, marking the deadliest day of the outbreak that began last month. It had already killed more than 1,000 people worldwide.

Long Island Jewish Valley Stream officials say they are prepared to deal with any new cases of the coronavirus should they come to the region. The hospital’s executive director, David Seligman, said his administration has already educated medical staff about the protocols that the hospital has in place to address the disease.

“This isn’t, frankly, as complicated as some people in the community think it is,” Seligman said. “We have a screening process on many infectious diseases, now including the novel coronavirus, ultimately [to] make sure the community is safe.”

The disease, which the World Health Organization dubbed COVID-19, is believed to have originated in bat livestock for sale at a fish market in Wuhan, China, in late January — although global health experts noted that there may have been an intermediate host that spread the new strain to humans. There are currently more than 680 cases reported outside China, with 15 confirmed in the United States.

“The world is getting smaller and smaller . . . and whatever happens at the weakest link could affect all of us,” Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the WHO, said at a news conference Feb. 11. “I think we now have a real problem on our hands, and we must take what’s happening now seriously.”

Global health officials said they are operating under the assumption that the virus is being spread through the air. It remains unlikely that it will reach Nassau County, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is screening everyone entering the country for the disease.

In cases in which patients arrive at the hospital with a fever, cough or shortness of breath, a doctor will ask whether they have visited China over the past two weeks or if they know someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. If the patient answers yes to either question, emergency room doctors are advised to call the Nassau County Department of Health, which would direct them to test for the virus either by collecting a cheek swab or blood sample.

If the test is positive, the department may recommend that the patient be quarantined at the hospital, where he or she would stay in a negative pressure room. Under those conditions, the room’s atmosphere acts like a vacuum to contain any germs within. Anything in the room would then be filtered out, according to Salvatore Pardo, chairman of LIJ’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

The Department of Health may also recommend that the patient be quarantined at home for about two weeks, roughly around the time when he or she would no longer be symptomatic or contagious. “The important thing is to sequester them away from the public right now, so they would be basically alone,” Pardo said, advising that anyone with a fever should not go to school or work, and everyone should wash hands to fight the spread of the disease.

“The coronavirus is really like any other virus,” Pardo said, “and in a sense there is nothing about it that you should be more worried about.”

The most recent strains of the disease that have previously spread to the United States include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, in 2014, and the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003. If someone does start to exhibit symptoms, he or she should seek medical attention, Pardo said, noting that the virus may be more deadly for those who are pregnant, elderly, young or undergoing chemotherapy.

Of much greater concern, he said, is the flu, which typically kills anywhere from 12,000 to roughly 60,000 Americans annually. The CDC estimates that there have been at least 22 million cases of the flu so far this winter, with 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths. In New York, there were more than 150,000 lab-confirmed cases of the flu by the end of January, double the number from the year before.

“I still think the influenza virus is much more deadly, and more worrisome than what’s happening with the current virus,” Pardo said, attributing the deaths from the coronavirus to a miscalculation of how quickly it would spread.

Those deaths, however, are causing people to rush to hospitals throughout the country, worried that they may have the disease, overloading the system. 

That is what happened, Pardo said, when the swine flu spread across Long Island in 2009. “It was hard to manage the crowds,” he recalled, “so you see a lot of confusion and people lying around, [and] you don’t know if they’re fine.”

Despite the panic, Pardo maintained that the risk of death from coronavirus, including the latest strain, is low, adding, “I think people have to keep in mind that what they’re seeing is certainly the worst of the worst.”