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Washington state health officials are preparing for possible coronavirus spread

caption: The Washington State Department of Health public health lab in Shoreline, Wash.
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The Washington State Department of Health public health lab in Shoreline, Wash.
KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Right now the coronavirus risk to the public is low. Health workers are focusing on containing the spread of the disease -- COVID-19 -- from people who might be sick.

For the first time Friday, samples from people who may be sick from the novel coronavirus will be tested in Washington state, according to health officials.

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The state Department of Health’s public health lab will be able to test samples from up to 26 people a day and results should be generated in a day, rather than a week as it is now.

The change represents a step forward in the state’s efforts to monitor and contain the virus, providing quicker and more complete understanding of the status of anyone who may experience coronavirus-like symptoms.

It will allow the state to test more people with unexplained illnesses who hadn’t traveled abroad recently, and who previously weren’t being tested.

“For example if there was a cluster of folks that got admitted to the hospital for even vague respiratory symptoms,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist, “We would investigate that cluster of disease.”

On Thursday, state health officials updated reporters on other ways they are preparing and offered tips to the public.

State health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy says the state is collecting data already for the flu that could help find new cases.

“We can monitor the number of patients who are being seen for fever or respiratory illnesses, and that data can indicate if there’s a spike of people coming in to the health care system with symptoms that might be consistent with COVID-19.”

The health department is also advising school districts about potential school closures if the virus spreads, Dr. Lofy said.

To date there has been one confirmed case of novel coronavirus in Washington, according to state data. Two new possible cases are pending test results.

Officials say there’s no evidence that the virus is spreading in Washington state and the risk to the public is low.

Still, the public should get prepared if the illness does spread, health officials said.

First, maybe save the masks for the health professionals.

“I understand the concern that you want to rush out and buy a mask,” Dr. Lindquist said. “But I personally am not doing that. I’m encouraging all my family not to do that, and even here at DOH we’re encouraging the supply to go to the hospitals.”

The biggest need for the masks are for folks who are evaluating others for coronavirus, he said.

Instead, here’s the advice from the state health officer, Dr. Lofy:

“People should also start to think about plans about what they might do if their child’s school closes and to check in with their work about their sick leave and telework options, should they need to stay home to care for someone.”

And in general, wash your hands often, cover your coughs and sneezes, and stay home when you’re sick.

It’s the same advice coming out of Public Health – Seattle & King County.

Seattle and King County Health Officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin is urging people throughout the community to prepare in case of a serious outbreak that may necessitate school closures.

Public Health – Seattle & King County has been advising schools, businesses, local government agencies, and public utilities on how to prepare for a pandemic, including how to continue operations if many employees are out sick. The agency has also posted a planning guide for businesses and organizations.

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