EAMC Infection Prevention and Education employees train hospitalists on the proper donning and doffing of personal protective equipment earlier in March

Preparations by Auburn City Schools, the city of Auburn and EAMC continue for the expected emergence of COVID-19 in the Auburn community as the outbreak in the United States expands at an increasing rate.

Alabama has one confirmed case of coronavirus in Montgomery County as of Friday morning.

”Along with my fellow Alabamians, I have closely monitored the rapidly changing events regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19). As a state, we have taken precautionary measures and made preparations in the case that the virus would eventually reach our state. As I have emphasized time and again, the safety and health of Alabamians is paramount, said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in a release.

Auburn City Schools announced  that classes would not resume this week, but Gov. Ivey has announced that all schools will be closed until April 6.

As of Thursday morning, there are no confirmed cases in Alabama public schools, said Eric Mackey, state superintendent of education, who added that the department has sent out guidelines to school systems statewide on how to deal with COVID-19, including identifying those individuals who have traveled to affected areas and hot spots in the United States.

The state has also recommended that school systems cancel any trips planned overseas. The State Department of Education has also worked out a game plan for dealing with possibly closing a school if someone there tests positive, said Mackey, and that a decision would be made in conjunction with the Education Department and the Department of Public Health. 

"We've directed (school superintendents) to let us know if they get a positive case even though we'd be getting that notification through the health department," he said. "We would like to make sure we get as fast a message as possible, so if they find that there's confirmed case of a student or faculty member or staff member, then we want to know that immediately, and then proceed to help them make a decision about what to do next in that situation. 

"The direction we sent superintendents last week was for them to not close schools or cancel major events without checking with us first, and so we're following protocol with the Department of Public Health. ... If there were a confirmed case of a student or a teacher or a staff member, somebody who worked in a school, this is how we would handle that: We would close that school for 24 to 48 hours, and then assess the situation. So that's where public health comes in. They do an assessment."

The Alabama Department of Public Health has tested about 20 patients for COVID-19 since last Thursday through Tuesday and could currently handle about 150 tests a day.

The COVID-19 outbreak has also produced ripple effects in the sports world, with the Southeastern Conference announcing that the remainder of the SEC Tournament is canceled and all sports suspended until March 30. The NCAA has also announced the cancelation of the NCAA basketball tournaments as well as remaining winter and spring sports championships.

"This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities," said a news release by the NCAA. 

Auburn University has also taken steps in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, announcing that the university will be transitioning to remote instruction starting Monday and running through April 10. All university events, including sports, have been canceled through April 10, and dining facilities, libraries and residence halls will also be closed during that period. No decision has been made yet on whether spring commencement will be held.

Auburn residents should not be surprised if a case of COVID-19 pops up in the community at some point. Local experts are treating this possibility as a "when" scenario, not an "if."

"This is probably just going to happen. We just have to be prepared," said Dr. Ricardo Maldonado, infectious disease expert at EAMC. "This shouldn’t fall just on a hospital. We all have the responsibility to respond to this epidemic. Every single member of this community should know what to do.

"I believe that every member of our community can have an impact to stop this epidemic or control it."

COVID-19 is a novel, or new, virus in the coronavirus family, one that Maldonado says causes more serious infections. COVID-19 symptoms, which may appear two to 14 days after exposure, include fever, cough and shortness of breath. If you feel these symptoms, it is recommended that you stay at home and contact your primary physician for further instructions. There have been more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. in 35 states, including Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

About 80 percent of patients with COVID-19 will only have mild symptoms.

"Those patients should be able to just treat it at home like any other influenza or cold," said Maldonado. "We actually want you to get treated at home on the comfort of your couch."

About 15 percent of patients will have a more serious infection that might require hospitalization even though there are no treatments at the moment. 

"There’s no medication right now that we have available to treat our patients," said Maldonado, who added that 5 percent of patients will be very sick and require critical care. "Now, if you have more than just mild symptoms — so it’s not just the aches, cough or the mild fever — but rather it’s a persistent fever or you have a hard time breathing, that means that you might require medical care. Again, that would be only about 20 percent of patients. If that happens, we want you to call your primary doctor or your local hospital. We have a hotline here that we can call. We want to know when you’re coming to our office or to a hospital. But we don’t want you to come when you have mild symptoms."

The hotline for those who feel they are sick and have traveled to affected regions is 334-528-SICK.

COVID-19 spreads like other respiratory infections — through coughs, sneezes or contaminated surfaces. 

"This means that when you’re close to somebody, within six feet, when you cough or you sneeze you can spread that infection to other people," said Maldonado. "Cough etiquette is going to be extremely important. Ideally, we should cover our cough and sneeze with a disposable tissue. We should not cover our cough with our hands. They become contaminated and we could spread this virus somewhere else, including surfaces.

"What we want to do really here is cover our sneeze or cough with tissue, if possible. If you do not have tissue available, even your sleeve would be better than using your hand."

Maldonado stressed the "paramount importance" of frequent hand-washing with soap and water, and that using hand sanitizer would be helpful if soap and water aren't available. It is also important for people to not touch their face or others' faces, or shake hands with others.

""There’s no need to panic right now," Maldonado said.

The city of Auburn has also been making preparations in the event of an outbreak in the community, making contingency plans to prevent services to residents from being disrupted. Deputy Director of Public Safety Will Mathews is overseeing the city's preparations.

"The City of Auburn has a longstanding business continuity plan to ensure that we’re ready to maintain city services in any scenario from weather disaster to pandemic. We have a task force in place with departments collaborating and evaluating the situation," said Auburn Mayor Ron Anders.

Anders, Assistant City Manager Megan Crouch, and representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and Auburn Opelika Tourism Bureau met with the Downtown Merchant Association Friday morning to discuss the effects coronavirus may have on downtown businesses and to brainstorm collective efforts the group can take. Crouch indicated that the City Council will consider a resolution at its meeting Tuesday that would make downtown parking free through April 9, as well as give the city manager the authority to extend it through May 1 if needed.

Updates from the city can be found online at https://www.auburnalabama.org/coronavirus/

EAMC's updates on the coronavirus can be found at https://www.eamc.org/patient-and-guests/coronavirus-covid-19-update

The Alabama Department of Public Health is providing updates at www.alabamapublichealth.gov/infectiousdiseases/2019-coronavirus.html

Auburn University, which recently recalled students studying abroad and suspended international travel, is providing updates at https://ocm.auburn.edu/news/coronavirus/

The most up-to-date information can be found at the  CDC's dedicated website at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

EAMC's full press conference can be found here:

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