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Department of Health prepares for COVID-19 Department of Health prepares for COVID-19

Department of Health prepares for COVID-19

Friday, March 13, 2020 by Sarit Laschinsky Special to The Press in Local News

Testing starts at state lab

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine has provided an update on the COVID-19 novel (new) coronavirus and announced the Department of Health’s ability to test potential cases in the state laboratory.

Levine spoke during a March 3 telebriefing for the press.

According to the Department of Health website as of the morning of March 11, there are 14 presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania with eight cases in Montgomery County, two in Bucks County, one each in Delaware, Monroe, and Wayne counties and one in Philadelphia.

A presumptive positive case is one in which testing has not yet been done by the Centers for Disease Control.

After the first two cases were detected on March 6, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an emergency disaster declaration to provide increased support to state agencies responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

Levine said during the teleconference that the Department of Health has been testing samples and monitoring patients for the last month, and that the risk for an individual person is “really quite low.”

She declined to provide exact statistics or locations of monitored individuals, citing privacy and confidentiality concerns.

Levine also acknowledged the rapidly developing situation of the coronavirus outbreak and the possibility of undetected cases.

“We really don’t know if there has been community spread here,” she said. “If we have a positive test, then our great epidemiology staff, working with our county and municipal health partners, will be doing tracking and appropriate testing to limit spread.

“I don’t want to decrease the significance of the situation.

“COVID-19 poses a significant risk to public health in the United States.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms for COVID-19 include coughing, shortness of breath and other respiratory problems and fever, which may appear two to 14 days after exposure.

The severity of illness may range from mild to severe, including death, and older adults and people with health issues are at additional risk for serious illness.

Additionally, Levine said that while local testing for COVID-19 has taken time, Pennsylvania is now conducting specimen tests for possible coronavirus infections at the laboratory in Exton.

“This is a very important step for us as we continue to work to provide timely updates to Pennsylvanians,” Levine said. “Our state laboratory has the ability to meet the testing needs for now, and our testing abilities will be enhanced when commercial labs are approved by the FDA to start testing.”

She noted that having in-state testing “allows us to exercise clinical judgment and discretion in terms of who we’re testing, and it decreases the turnabout time significantly.”

According to Levine, the turnaround time is approximately one day, depending when the specimen is received. The lab originally could process six tests per day but has since increased its capacity to approximately 25 specimens per day, according to a March 4 news release.

Levine noted that while the Food and Drug Administration has approved a process for commercial labs to follow and expects its implementation to commence within two weeks, federal authorization is still required before commercial testing can begin.

“The authorization to do the tests comes from the FDA. It doesn’t come from us … we’ll have to see how that develops,” Levine said.

Asked about the testing criteria, Levine said the Department of Health has been following the strict guidance from the CDC.

She said people who have traveled to a country severely affected by the novel coronavirus — China, South Korea, Iran, Italy and others — or people with a possible known exposure to an infected individual would be priorities for testing.

She added that a proviso allows physicians or the state epidemiologists to exercise judgment and test anyone “if we think it’s indicated.”

Levine said people who think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 through travel or community spread need to contact their health care provider for an evaluation or go to the emergency department of a hospital or health system.

She emphasized the importance of giving prior notification, either by calling the hospital directly or contacting 1-877-PA-HEALTH for public health officials to notify the facility, to ensure appropriate precautions are taken to protect other patients and health care workers.

Levine added the state was providing resources for potential quarantines and said they would take “whatever measures are necessary” to allow people to be tested.

“We don’t want someone’s inability to pay to limit that,” Levine said.

As for common precautionary measures, Levine said the same steps taken to limit the spread of the flu and other illnesses — washing hands thoroughly, not touching one’s eyes, mouth or nose, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning commonly touched surfaces, and staying home when sick — should continue to be followed.

“Those are exactly the same healthy habits that you should continue to practice to protect your family and yourself against the spread of this novel coronavirus COVID-19,” Levine said.

Regarding other coronavirus precautions, Levine said Wolf recently activated the Department of Health’s emergency operation center to enhance response coordination with county and municipal health departments, first responders and state, federal and local partners.

She said the Department of Health has spent approximately $200,000 on the response to coronavirus so far and expects expenditures to increase as testing ramps up and possible positive results emerge.

Levine added that the pandemic flu plan has been adapted for COVID-19, symptom monitoring procedures have been provided for Pennsylvania residents returning from China and information has been distributed to health care professionals, businesses and educational institutions.

For information, Levine said the most up-to-date data, preparation checklists and tips is available from the Department of Health website, health.pa.gov, and the CDC website and social media channels.