Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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The Gazette: Flu is a Bigger Concern than COVID-19

JANESVILLE – A customer recently bought a bunch of medical masks at Hometown Pharmacy in Janesville to send to a family in Hong Kong.

Pharmacist Laura Colyer Zagelow, owner of Hometown Pharmacy, chuckled at the irony because the masks were made in China, distributed in Janesville and are now being sent back. The Janesville pharmacy has since run out of masks because people are stocking up in fear of a novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

But local health officials say the risk of novel coronavirus in Rock County is incredibly low, and people should be more concerned about influenza, if anything.

Flu activity has been high in Janesville this year, and other respiratory illnesses have been making rounds through the community, said Casey Stubbs, infection prevention and control coordinator for Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville.

Jetting to the pharmacy to buy masks is problematic because it reduces supplies for health care systems or clinics in the event of a local outbreak, Stubbs said.

That’s the case in China, which prompted the Janesville customer to buy masks for Chinese family members, Colyer Zagelow said.

Medical masks can help prevent disease, but they’re typically most effective for use in public spaces where people are infected, such as a hospital or clinic, Stubbs said.

Mercyhealth currently has plenty of masks and supplies, Stubbs said.

Protection from the novel coronavirus is the same as for flu and other common respiratory illnesses. If people take the preventive steps they should take every flu season, they likely will be OK, Stubbs said.

Staying home when sick, thorough handwashing and covering coughs are the best defenses against respiratory infections, including novel coronavirus.

What is novel coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that causes the common cold in hundreds of people every year, said Brenda Klahn, infection preventionist at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville.

Novel coronavirus, also called COVID-19, has caused worldwide concern in recent months, Klahn said.

COVID-19 is a new strain of the virus that health officials are still learning about, she said. It’s a respiratory infection that causes coughing, sneezing, runny nose, fever and other symptoms.

Those symptoms are common for many diseases.

People should not worry if they have those symptoms unless they recently visited China or were in close contact with someone who has traveled, Klahn said.

One case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Wisconsin. The person is a Dane County resident who recently traveled to China, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Sixteen other people have been tested in Wisconsin. Fifteen of those cases were negative and one is pending, said Nick Zupan, an epidemiologist at the Rock County Public Health Department.

St. Mary’s and Mercyhealth have conducted tests for common coronavirus this year, but neither hospital has tested for COVID-19, the strain causing nationwide concern, officials said.

“To be quite honest, right now our level of concern today is very low for coronavirus,” Klahn said.

What is being done?

Mercyhealth and St. Mary’s have updated their screening processes to ask all patients about recent travel.

Patients are being asked if they have traveled to China or been in close contact with anyone who has traveled there, Klahn said.

Hospital staffers talk daily about their screening processes and can update their processes instantly through digital systems, Klahn and Stubbs said.

Visitors to emergency rooms or urgent care might see more people wearing masks in waiting rooms, but that is not because of COVID-19, Stubbs said.

Masks are available to patients at Mercyhealth year-round and are often distributed during flu season, Stubbs said.

Concerns about spreading flu are driving the use of masks far more than COVID-19, Stubbs said.

What if?

If someone has traveled to China or has had contact with a traveler, staffers check to see if the person has symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and decide from there whether a specimen should be taken for testing, Klahn said.

Neither Mercyhealth nor St. Mary’s has the equipment to test for COVID-19 in-house. Specimens would be sent to a state lab, which forwards them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to be processed, Klahn said.

State officials said they hope to receive equipment soon that will permit in-state testing.

If a case were confirmed in Rock County, the health department would assist the hospital with quarantine and surveillance, said Marie-Noel Sandoval, health officer for the Rock County Public Health Department.

Health department officials would help investigate the case and report data to the state, Sandoval said.

The process is the same for most other reportable diseases, Sandoval said. Such diseases include measles, rabies, pertussis, tuberculosis and others, according to the state health department.


The COVID-19 outbreak is evolving constantly, said Erica Mathis, a SSM Health spokeswoman.

The outbreak is being monitored daily by local officials who are getting information from the state health department and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health officials are communicating with schools, hospitals and local businesses to educate them on disease prevention, Sandoval said.

She advises businesses and organizations to plan what they will do if a lot of employees call in sick.

For example, businesses should consider options such as letting people work from home if they or someone they live with are sick, Sandoval said.

Individuals also should plan ahead in case they must stay home for a prolonged period of time, Klahn said.

Keeping a reasonable amount of nonperishable food and over-the-counter medications at home can reduce the need for sick people to go out in public and spread disease, Klahn said.

“From watching the news, if I didn’t know what I knew, I might be more scared,” Klahn said. “A lot of stuff is sounding scary. Right now, in Janesville, I think the risk is low.”

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