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Public health expert: Prepare for coronavirus, but don’t panic

Jacksonville nurses and doctors say they are ready for whatever might come their way.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the globe and in the United States, North Florida doctor’s offices and hospitals are preparing for patients.

As of Wednesday afternoon, four Florida residents have tested positive for coronavirus, according to health officials. Three are in the Tampa Bay area and one person is in self-isolation in Washington state.

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However, COVID-19 is on the top of people’s minds and the doctors and nurses in Jacksonville say they are prepared for whatever could come their way.

“Patients are asking us a lot of questions about what they can do to be ready,” said Alpa Patel, M.D., an internist Millennium Physicians Group.

She said medical staff members are getting calls from people concerned about the coronavirus, and health experts are on close watch.

“I think the scary part for patients and ourselves is that there really isn’t a medicine we can get for it,” Patel said. “Whereas you still can with the flu.”

Millennium Physicians Group, which has offices spread throughout Florida, is preparing staff with emergency contamination kits: headgear, a full mask, gloves and goggles, the gear to be used if a patient shows symptoms of coronavirus.

The company also shared a checklist with providers, keeping them up to date on the red flags and warning signs, including symptoms and travel history.

“We have patients calling in with influenza illness like symptoms, cough, fever, shortness of breath,” Patel said. “We’re asking them about their travel history and if they’ve come in contact with anyone. And in that case we would ask him not to come into the office, we would contact the health department and go from there.”

Orange Park Medical Center and Memorial Hospitals are on guard, limiting entrances to the Emergency Rooms and medical facilities, so patients can be better screened.

“We are very familiar with how to respond to this,” said Amber Barnes, MPH, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of North Florida.

Barnes worked for the health department studying infections and now teaches public health classes at UNF. She said the United States is well-prepared for outbreaks like the novel coronavirus pandemic. She said people should be prepared and watch what’s going on, but there’s no need to panic.

Most people affected have mild symptoms similar to a cold. The most at-risk for death are the immunocompromised, the very young and very old.

“We learn lab techniques, containment measures, how to discuss things with our public,” Barnes said. “So with each outbreak we get better with our response.”

Barnes said good hygiene and handwashing as well as staying out of extremely dense public places will help minimize the risk of infection. She also said wearing masks will not protect people from catching the coronavirus, so consumers should not buy the products out of fear.

Dr. Patel noted it’s possible the coronavirus has already been in North Florida, but the symptoms are usually minor and experts weren’t testing for it until recently.

If you do think you have COVID-19 — fever, cough, trouble breathing — experts say don’t go to a doctor or emergency room right away as you could contaminate other people. The urge patients to first call and seek advice from health officials.

Local health care providers do not have test kits for the virus. However, the health department can send specimens to three labs in Florida: in Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami.


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