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Health official: NM preparing for coronavirus

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As of Thursday, all 10 people’s tests were negative for COVID-19

New Mexico health officials were in Roswell Friday morning to assure the public the state is taking steps to prepare for the new coronavirus, but one Roswell medical professional questioned if enough is being done at both the state and national level.

Dr. Michael Landen, New Mexico state epidemiologist, and Eric Chenier, New Mexico deputy secretary of health, spoke at a public forum Friday morning at the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. About 80 people attended.

Landen’s main message: “We are prepared, and people should really not panic.”

Landen said that as of Thursday, 10 people in the state had been tested for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, but all had negative results. That number had already increased by Friday morning, but Landen didn’t give the additional number. The state has advised those people to take their temperature twice a day and will be in daily contact through a 14-day period, he said.

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Landen outlined the precautions the state is taking, with an emphasis on preparing for community spread of the disease, or when a patient’s exposure to the virus cannot be traced to a direct source, such as contact with another person known to have the disease or travel to an area of an outbreak.

The state is in contact with people who have traveled to countries with level 3 warnings from the federal government — China, South Korea, Italy and Iran — and participated in a recent training with the federal government and several other states simulating a widespread outbreak of flu.

In addition, the state is conducting conference calls with medical providers and educators across the state, modifying its process of tracking influenza to apply it to the coronavirus, and making plans for alternative patient care.

The latter will take an effort in communicating with the public, Landen said.

“A large number of cases have mild symptoms. So we don’t want everybody with mild disease going to the hospitals,” Landen said.

“We want people to be cared for in the most appropriate setting for their severity level,” he said.

“For the majority of people, the most appropriate place would be at home,” Landen said. A coronavirus hotline would let them consult with a medical professional on treating their symptoms and whether or not to be tested.

In answering a question from the audience, Landen acknowledged a greater effort will be needed to communicate information about the disease to disenfranchised people who might not have ready access to telecommunications or, for example, the developmentally disabled.

Those at greatest risk for the disease are the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, Chenier said.

“Only about 2% of those affected are children,” Chenier said.

“High-risk groups are older adults, persons with heart disease, diabetes, respiratory illnesses and other chronic conditions,” Landen said.

He said it’s those people the state would encourage to go to a clinic or emergency room if they are showing symptoms — cough, fever and shortness of breath.

“We need to make sure our hospitals and clinics are resilient to be able to handle more patients than usual. Some ways to do that are to have alternate care sites. These would be sites in an existing facility or elsewhere with additional outpatient rooms to see patients, or have additional beds,” Landen said.

The state will test for COVID-19 those who meet any of three criteria:

• Those showing symptoms but who test negative for common respiratory illness and have traveled to a country with a level 3 travel warning;

• Patients hospitalized with a severe respiratory illness such as pneumonia without an alternative diagnosis;

• Patients with flu symptoms who test negative for influenza.

“We feel with those three different categories, we are going to have a greater chance of finding a case in New Mexico if it actually is here,” Landen said.

The tests — a throat or nasal swab — are free and can be done locally. They are sent to the Department of Health’s Scientific Laboratory in Albuquerque, but national labs such as TriCore and Quest Diagnostics should be able to conduct the test starting sometime next week, Landen said.

Dr. Masoud Khorsand, CEO of Kymera Independent Physicians, questioned if that was enough.

“The private practices are going to be the front line, and I am 100% sure they are not adequately preparing,” he said.

Khorsand said he has been watching the spread of the disease with the help of colleagues around the world, including Iran, one of the countries with a level 3 travel advisory from the federal government.

“Four weeks ago, when it came in, everybody was like here. Within two weeks, the whole country’s involved,” he said of Iran. “Like here, there wasn’t adequate testing.”

Kymera is taking its own precautions, Khorsand said, including installing handwashing stations in waiting rooms and considering masking all patients and providers should the virus appear in the state.

During the forum, he questioned Landen on what the state is doing to help provide personal protection equipment such as masks, as Kymera has had difficulty getting them.

“The distributors are not providing (them) to the private health care clinics. They are providing mainly to the hospitals and they refuse to send us any. So we have to go to Home Depot, of all places,” Khorsand said.

“We are willing to pay for it. The problem is nobody’s getting it to us,” he said.

In his answer, Landen noted President Donald Trump recently signed a bill allocating $8.3 billion to help fund local and state response to the virus. Part of that money will be used to add to the federal stockpile of personal protection equipment that can be distributed to states, Landen said.

The state is also purchasing the equipment, he said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.