Although there are more than 40,000 confirmed cases worldwide of 2019-nCoV – better known as coronavirus – there is no sign of it in the Virgin Islands.
But because the virus has spread so rapidly since it was first reported on Dec. 31 in Wuhan, China, local health and emergency management agencies said at a news conference Monday that they have formed a team to respond if it does show up.
Dr. Esther Ellis, the territorial epidemiologist, Daryl Jaschen, director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, and Francine Lang, director of public preparedness with the V.I. Health Department, talked Monday about how they will respond, what the public should do to avoid getting sick and how to deal with a suspected case.
Ellis gave the statistics about the virus, including reporting that 812 people have died. Another 98 had perished by Monday evening. Symptoms are a fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. In severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death, according to the World Health Organization.
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause a wide range of illnesses from the common cold to MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, according to WHO. The new strain has not been previously identified in humans until December, but the viruses are transmitted between animals and people. SARS-CoV was passed to humans from civet cats and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels and the new strain may have started with bats.
To avoid getting sick, Ellis recommended hand washing and covering a sneeze or cough with a sleeve, not a hand. If someone has visited China and displays coronavirus symptoms, Ellis said to call ahead before going to the doctor’s office or emergency room, avoid contact with other people and wash hands after every cough.
“In the event the U.S. Virgin Islands has a person under investigation, we have the capacity to test them, put them in quarantine if needed, conduct contact tracing and respond. At this time, we do not have any confirmed cases of the 2019-nCoV or any people under investigation,” the epidemiologist said.
Ellis said the Health Department will operate a health screening booth at the Agriculture Fair.
The Health Department has monitored the outbreak since it was first reported. Lang said a team of representatives from Health, V.I. Port Authority, West Indian Company, U.S. Coast Guard, both hospitals, Tourism Department and others meet frequently, and Health shares information daily from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. An infectious disease planning team has been established that meets weekly and communicates news with the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
“Right now, the Virgin Islands is prepared to respond to an outbreak of 2019-nCoV, but our plan is really to prevent and to respond by conducting education and outreach in the community, giving people the information they need so that they can prevent infection,” Lang said.
Jaschen said VITEMA will use a “tabletop discussion” to plan coping mechanisms on Feb. 21 to prepare, respond and recover from a possible pandemic. Led by the Health Department, they will work with the private sector, government departments and the CDC. A “tabletop discussion” is informal, with a simulated event and how to handle it. They will discuss the medical aspect, responsibilities, how to transport patients, best practices and more.
“The tabletop exercise will offer participants the opportunity to explore different ideas in the context of a real-world scenario,” Jaschen said.
Department of Agriculture News
Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson also spoke at the news conference. He talked about the 49th Agricultural Fair next weekend and outlined some of the activities. (See Source article on the subject.)
Nelson also said $27,000 in checks and $12,000, earmarked for the AgFair, were stolen during a break in at an Agriculture office. The investigation continues and an arrest shortly afterwards had nothing to do with the break-in, he stressed.
Nelson announced the abattoir will be closed temporarily to address federal mandates and the dates will be reported at another time. He also said inspections will be made of leased land to ensure farmers are making full use of their acreage. Those who are not risk “a clawback” and losing land to other farmers.
Assistant Commissioner Diana Collingwood announced two classes on pesticide safety and uses, that will be offered at the University of the Virgin Islands on Feb. 25 and Feb. 26. Those who are interested can call Agriculture for more information.
The first farmers and fishers conference will be held March 3 on St. Croix and March 4 on St. Thomas, Collingwood said. Some of the topics to be discussed will be marketing, record keeping, practices and the future of farming and fishing. Times will be announced.