Oakland County, state advise regular flu-prevention steps to avoid new coronavirus

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published March 2, 2020

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OAKLAND COUNTY/LANSING — Dr. Russell Faust, the medical director of the Oakland County Health Division, believes the media is blowing the potential COVID-19 pandemic out of proportion. 

But as long as the medical community has the public’s attention, he’ll take advantage of the opportunity. 

“For something like this, where we don’t have a vaccine, most of the work toward prevention is community mitigation. When there are no pharmaceutical interventions, we go back to the actions we use to stop the spread of the flu, which for the average American is much more of a danger,” he explained. “Wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, don’t share utensils, stay away from large collections of people. That’s the beauty of the basics: It’s not something that’s specific to COVID-19, and with any luck, if we do all these things, we’ll not only slow the spread of the virus, we’ll have a decrease in our flu season too.”

All hands on deck

Last week, Oakland County Executive David Coulter announced his office’s efforts to create a task force to address the spread of COVID-19, better known to many as the Wuhan coronavirus, which has spread from a small city in China to several countries around the globe, including the United States, in just weeks’ time. So far, according the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, more than 81,000 cases have been reported internationally, the majority of which have been in China, including more than 2,600 deaths there. 

Symptoms of the respiratory virus include typical flu-like complaints like a runny nose, cough and fever, but they can be more serious to sensitive groups with compromised immune systems, or very young or very old patients.

Coulter said a task force team has been assembled to organize readiness efforts in case the virus becomes widespread, including representatives from the county’s Health Division, Homeland Security office, Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and more. He tapped former state Rep. Sander Levin as an independent advisor.

“Sandy Levin is uniquely qualified with his expertise on health care issues from his work on the Ways and Means Committee, international relations and his deep roots in Oakland County,” Coulter said in a press release.

“In these health matters it is wise to exercise an abundance of caution and have in place the organization to be fully prepared if and as necessary,” Levin added in the county executive’s press release.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office has publicized similar coordination efforts between different branches of state government, including activation of the State Emergency Operations Center.

“Right now, we’re harnessing all of the resources of state government to help people prepare and keep themselves and their families safe,” Whitmer said in a press release. “We’re ensuring that every branch of state government is on alert and actively coordinating to prevent the spread of coronavirus if it comes to Michigan. We are taking this step out of an abundance of caution. We will continue to take every necessary precaution to keep Michiganders safe.”

So what does all that emergency preparedness look like? 

Certainly not what most of us imagine: plastic barriers and suits and an eruption of chaos, like Hollywood might’ve led us to believe. 

Faust said it’s more like quicker and better updates, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all the way down to primary care physicians and school teachers.

At the county level, that means creating and distributing materials and information for prevention, like printed pamphlets and social media blasts about disease mitigation, including the old standards, like thoroughly washing your hands, staying home if you’re ill, covering your mouth during a cough or sneeze, and steering clear of crowds, where you’re more likely to come across an infected person.

The county is also making sure public organizations and medical groups have accurate and up-to-date information on testing and diagnoses.

“For instance, one day we had a MiHAN (Michigan Health Alert Network) message that explained the state hadn’t yet approved a COVID-19 test. An hour later, the approval came through,” Faust explained. “We get CDC updates a couple times a day, and through MiHAN we can send out messages — targeted toward urgent cares, emergency rooms, private practice physicians — and keep them up to speed and on the same page.”

In those updates will likely be how many new travelers have passed through local airports, like Detroit Metro Airport and Oakland County International Airport, who might be at risk for having contracted the illness or who tested positive at those transit centers.

At the state level, that means tapping the shoulder of leaders in the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan State Police, so they can jump into action of additional medical resources might be needed to address a pandemic. 

Coronavirus < flu

But still, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan, and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldup said the risk of the illness making its way here and impacting the general public is low. 

So, why all the fuss?

“Since this virus is so highly transmissible, much more so than previous viruses, like SARS and MERS, it’s better to be prepared than to find out later that we should’ve taken this more seriously,” Faust said, referring to previous pandemic scares — severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome —  that fizzled out before they impacted large portions of American populations. 

“It’s unfortunate that emergency preparedness is not cool politically. Legislators don’t like to be convinced to spend money today on something that might happen tomorrow,” Faust continued. “So we’re doing everything we can to work on emergency preparedness now, and the best case scenario is we look back a month from now and say, ‘You know what? That was a good exercise’ or ‘Boy, are we glad we had everyone on the same page, from schools to jails to hospitals, and everyone was ready.’”

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Faust said, those “basics” of illness prevention are the best bets. Stay home when you’re sick; don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth; don’t share cups, plates, drinking bottles, utensils or other objects; clean and disinfect communal surfaces; and of course, wash your hands, and shield coughs and sneezes.

Aside from that? Faust advised residents to go get their flu shot.

“Yeah. It has nothing to do with COVID-19,” he said. “But since I’ve got your readers’ attention, I’d like people to get their flu shot. That can save more lives than anything else I can tell you to do. Why aren’t we focused on that?”

Call Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at (586) 498-1095.