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News, University News

First two presumptive coronavirus cases reach Rhode Island

State officials, University health services address public concern, emphasize preparedness

By
Science and Research Editor
Monday, March 2, 2020

Three University students are currently being tested for novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). While the students are currently in isolation, test results are pending.

State public health officials announced Rhode Island’s first two presumptive cases of COVID-19 coronavirus Saturday and Sunday respectively after finding out that two people who had returned from a trip to Europe Feb. 22 tested positive. The first presumptive patient, a man in his 40s, is currently hospitalized and receiving treatment; the second patient, a teenager, is currently home with mild symptoms, the Providence Journal reported. Officials have said that the potential risk to those in the state and at the University who have not had direct contact with the patients remains low.

The cases are presumptive — not confirmed — meaning that the patients, after showing symptoms of the coronavirus, tested positive for the virus through a newly developed testing protocol that is being applied nationally. The Rhode Island Department of Health State Health Laboratory conducted the tests, but health officials are still awaiting results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who will repeat the same test. If the CDC’s results corroborate the prior findings, the cases will be confirmed. Rhode Island health officials worked swiftly to implement the protocol this weekend because of the increasing need for it, according to Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott MD MPH’11. The patients had recently traveled to several European countries, including Italy, where cases of coronavirus have spiked. The University recently cancelled its study abroad program in Italy, The Herald previously reported.

“My primary message to the people of Rhode Island this morning is that the risk in Rhode Island at this point is low, and (the state in conjunction with federal government has) been preparing for this for weeks,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a news conference Sunday which announced the first case. “Be careful and be vigilant, but don’t panic,” she added. “We have an excellent plan in place that’s already working.” Raimondo also emphasized the importance of remaining well-informed about the situation.

“We have known that this (would) happen,” Alexander-Scott said at Sunday’s press conference. “We are ready to respond,” she said.

From the University’s standpoint, “Everyone has been preparing as though there could potentially be a case in the community,” Associate Vice President for Campus Life and Executive Director of Health and Wellness Vanessa Britto said, adding that “There is not (a case) in our direct Brown community that we know of.”

Now that coronavirus has expanded into the state, people may be more conscious of the illness, but “I don’t think that (the case in Rhode Island) directly changes the risk,” Britto said. “It’s certainly a very immediate issue, and so we certainly want people to take good care of themselves,” she said, but “We’re prepared just as we have been all along.”

Despite the ongoing coronavirus developments, the University’s preparation strategies and recommendations on protection against the virus remain unchanged. Students and community members should continue to follow safe hygiene practices, especially if they are in contact with people who exhibit signs of illness, Britto said. These measures include using hand sanitizer, washing one’s hands, getting vaccinated for the flu and covering one’s mouth when they cough or sneeze, Britto added. Those who feel sick should not ignore their symptoms and should instead keep track of their temperature and contact their physicians.

Raimondo and Alexander-Scott recommended similar precautions. Addressing the entire Rhode Island community, Raimondo said, “Every single one of us has to play a role in being prepared and in limiting the spread of this illness.”

Alexander-Scott also said that receiving flu shots is important because it reduces one’s risk of having to go to the hospital, but she advised against wearing masks, which should be primarily reserved for those who are already ill and for health care providers. Masks are not believed to be beneficial to those who are not sick, Alexander-Scott said.

People who suspect that they may have coronavirus should first be mindful of their symptoms and contact their primary care provider with concerns instead of immediately heading to the emergency department, which would result in long wait times to receive care, she added.

The Rhode Island Department of Health has been following CDC guidelines to determine who qualifies for testing

“There are enough tests … but we want to be judicious in how we’re approaching it, which is why we have a system that’s set up where we are determining … when it’s appropriate to use the test and when not to,” Alexander-Scott said. To be tested, a person has to show symptoms themselves. “If (a person does) not have symptoms, we are not testing.”

Just as it is important to protect oneself from illness, people should also try to avoid spreading illness to others. At the University, “Sometimes people get really concerned about their academic obligations,” Britto said. “But we want people to take their health (and) safety first.” Students should inform their professors or supervisors and avoid attending their classes or other activities if they are feeling unwell. “Do take the appropriate precautions such that you’re both caring for yourself and not potentially putting another community (member) at risk,” Britto said.

Fortunately in the first case, all the steps the person who tested positive for the virus took upon his return to Rhode Island — such as not returning to work and seeking out treatment — and health care providers’ and health officials’  handling of the situation were “done very quickly; there wasn’t a delay,” Britto added. “This was the most ideal … situation that could happen in a case like this.” This comment came before the second diagnosis.

“Our thoughts are certainly with this person and their family to continue towards a full recovery,” Alexander-Scott said after the announcement of the first case and before confirmation of the second, in consideration of the first patient who tested positive. The approximately 40 people who had been in contact with him — who do not include the 26 others being monitored, as announced earlier this week — have been instructed on measures they should take moving forward to mitigate any possibility of spreading the illness, but symptoms have not surfaced in these people so far.

“Everyone should take a deep breath,” Alexander-Scott said.

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