On Wednesday, March 11, the COVID-19 outbreak caused by the new coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock, and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference in Geneva, as reported by ABC News. "We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic."
COVID-19 made its first Missouri appearance late last week in St. Louis County as health officials here and around the country are taking measures to control its rapid spread in the U.S.
The state’s positive findings were confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday. The patient is a St. Louis County woman in her 20s, who recently traveled to Italy. Her “presumed positive” case was announced during a Saturday evening press conference with included Governor Mike Parson, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and an emergency physician from Mercy Hospital St. Louis. “Presumed positive” means the specimen tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 at a state or local laboratory, which is sent to the CDC for definitive confirmation.
Page said the woman took all the right steps – calling the county’s Coronavirus Hotline number at 314-615-2660, receiving instructions and subsequently going to Mercy Hospital St. Louis with her symptoms: fever and respiratory symptoms.
Dr. Alok K. Sengupta, chairman of Mercy Hospital St. Louis’ Emergency Department, said the patient went straight to a negative pressure room away from the rest of the hospital population, where she was tested. Negative pressure rooms are used in hospitals to contain airborne contaminants.
“Our staff, physicians, nurses, everyone who has encountered the patient used personal protective equipment from start to finish,” Sengupta said. “The patient did not meet any of our admission criteria. At that point, we talked to our infection control teams, who then talked to the health department and we discharged the patient home.”
Page said she went home and was told to self-quarantine for 14 days after her symptoms disappear, along with her parents. Controversy ensued, however, when it became known that father left the home with another daughter, visited at least one other home and attended a father-daughter dance at the Ritz Carlton, according to an advisory sent out by a different school whose students came into contact with the father and other daughter. Through the family’s attorney, the father claims they did not know they were supposed to be quarantined as well.
County health department officials were identifying the woman’s close contacts to monitor for symptoms and in an attempt to contain any potential spread.
Public response to the novel coronavirus in the U.S. is rapidly changing. Some schools and businesses have closed for deep cleaning. Colleges and universities have extended spring breaks and added criteria for students to be admitted back on campus after traveling out of the area. Some nursing homes are limiting or prohibiting visitors. Entertainers have postponed concerts, politicians have cancelled rallies, conventions have been cancelled, large gatherings are discouraged. Hand sanitizer and staples are disappearing from store shelves.
During this outbreak, older and elderly people – particularly with chronic health conditions, such as heart or lung disease and diabetes – have been advised to forgo cruises and long flights and nonessential travel because of their potential risk for serious complications and death due to COVID-19.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said the risk from the new coronavirus can be looked at in two ways. “There is risk of being exposed and getting sick from this virus, and there is risk of getting very sick or dying from illness with this virus.
“This virus is capable of spreading easily and sustainably from person to person based on the available data,” Messonnier told reporters this week. “And there’s essentially no immunity against this virus in the population because it’s a new virus. Based on this, it’s fair to say that as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time either this year or next be exposed to this virus and there’s a good chance many will become sick. But again, based on what we know about this virus, we do not expect most people to develop serious illness.”
Globally, by March 11, there have been more than 115,000 cases of COVID-19, resulting in the deaths of more than 4,200 people worldwide. In the U.S., 38 states and the District of Columbia report over a thousand COVID-19 cases and counting, with 30 deaths from the new coronavirus.
At press time, there is only one positive case (in St. Louis County) out of 46 patients in Missouri who have been tested for COVID-19.
In St. Louis, classes resumed on Wednesday at New City School in the Central West End after it was closed for a day and thoroughly cleaned when a parent was tested for COVID-19.
"I am grateful the COVID-19 test results received this afternoon were negative, and the parent of a New City School student is no longer under quarantine,” said Dr. Fredrick Echols, director of the Department of Health for the City of St. Louis. “At this time, there are no positive or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the City of St. Louis.”
In the event of a positive test result in the city, Echols assured that St. Louis will take a number of steps to protect the public's health, including activating a city emergency operations center, contacting appropriate individuals and agencies to respond, monitor and collaborate during the outbreak.
On Monday, March 9, Bayer announced that one of its employees at its Creve Coeur campus may have been exposed to the virus and closed its Bayer campus in Creve Coeur “until further notice to implement additional cleaning measures in common areas, and, as a proactive measure out of an abundance of caution.” The same precautions are being taken at the campus of its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, located at City Place 4, which is also in Creve Coeur, as well as its Whippany and Morristown, New Jersey sites.
The county opened a coronavirus Emergency Command Center located in Ballwin last week.
To help prevent coming in contact with the new coronavirus or getting sick with COVID-19, use precautions you should take to avoid influenza, cold viruses and other germs.
“This coronavirus may be new, but the ways to prevent it are tried and true and well-established,” Page said. “Wash your hands with soap and water; use hand sanitizer when they’re not available; if you’re sick, avoid other people; avoid people who are sick; and use the same precautions you use for anyone who had flu symptoms.”
Currently, COVID-19 testing is limited to persons displaying symptoms.
“The reality is, there are constraints around testing for this virus,” Page said. “The United States is not at a point where we can provide testing for the general public, and it’s not useful on people who are not symptomatic.”
For information about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, visit www.cdc.gov or visit the St. Louis County website, stlcorona.com. The County’s Coronavirus Hotline number is 314-615-2660. It is monitored 24/7. The state recently activated a statewide 24/7 coronavirus COVID-19 hotline, 877-435-8411. It also has information on its website, www.health.mo.gov/coronavirus.