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Health officials: Coronavirus risk to Grand Forks residents currently ‘low’

coronavirus-covid-19-nih4.jpg
3D print of a SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—virus particle. The virus surface (blue) is covered with spike proteins (red) that enable the virus to enter and infect human cells. (Submitted / National Institutes of Health)

North Dakota health officials believe North Dakotans and Grand Forks residents are presently unlikely to contract the coronavirus .

“While (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is taking this seriously and leaning forward to best prepare for entry of this disease into the United States … we would still consider the risk to North Dakotans low at this time,” Levi Schlosser, an influenza surveillance coordinator at the North Dakota Department of Health, told the Herald on Thursday, Feb. 27.

But forecasting the virus’ effects -- and assessing the future risks it might pose to Grand Forks residents -- is tricky because experts don’t know much about it, yet.

“I think we should be cautious .... I don’t think that it should be a paralyzing fear,” said Jyotika Sharma, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of North Dakota. “The reason I believe why there is a lot of fear and paranoia about this virus is that, scientifically speaking, we don’t know much about this one.”

There are 60 confirmed U.S. cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, according to the CDC. The North Dakota health department is monitoring nine people for the virus, but there are no confirmed cases in the state.

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Health workers here are erring on the side of caution.

The federal government has suspended entry of foreign nationals who’ve been to China, where the virus was first reported, and has asked residents to reconsider cruise ship vacations into or within Asia.

More locally, staff at Altru Hospital are on the lookout for patients who might be carrying the disease, which means screening for people who say they’ve recently traveled from China or South Korea and show the tell-tale signs of the virus: fever, a cough and shortness of breath.

If a patient ticks those boxes, hospital staff are instructed to whisk them away to a special room for further questioning with the help of North Dakota Department of Health staff and to collect four samples -- from or of the patient’s nose, throat, phlegm and blood -- to send to the CDC via the state health department for testing.

Depending on the severity of their symptoms and what state health workers recommend, hospital staff would then either admit a patient into an isolated area of the hospital or send them home with instructions to stay there.

Altru workers stressed that they have not had to use any of those procedures to date.

There is presently no vaccine for the virus, but staff at the Grand Forks Public Health Department are ready to help distribute one throughout the city if the situation calls for it. For the moment, they’re publishing information about the virus on Facebook and regularly checking in with the state health department and CDC, among other agencies.

“We’re watching right now where the disease is happening,” said Debbie Swanson, the public health department’s director. “There is a very strong likelihood that we will start to see more cases in the United States just because of global travel patterns.”

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Swanson is set to brief Grand Forks City Council members at their meeting on Monday, March 2. Below is the latest health alert from the state's health department.

Forum News Service’s Jeremy Fugleberg contributed to this report

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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