Hospital officials are preparing their organizations on how to quickly identify and treat any patient who may present with the 2019 novel coronavirus, an infectious disease affecting the respiratory tract that has spread from China to more than a dozen countries including the United States.
The new strain of the coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, first emerged in Wuhan, China, had as of Thursday killed 132 in that country and sickened more than 6,000 others across 15 countries, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. Some U.S. airports are now screening passengers in an attempt to contain the spread.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday the global health body would reassess whether the threat level should be re-evaluated.
"I have decided to reconvene the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the new #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) tomorrow to advise me on whether the current outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern," WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus posted on Twitter.
Fears of the virus spreading further rattled financial markets sending shares down on Monday, though they largely rebounded a day later.
The threat of 2019-nCoV is occurring in the middle of the U.S. flu season, which can already strain a health facility's resources.
Only five cases have been confirmed so far in the U.S., and hospital officials say they are prepared to treat more patients should the need arise. Even though key questions remain about this coronavirus, hospital officials said they're well trained from prior experience including the threat of Ebola in 2014 and the 2009 outbreak of swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus.
Most hospitals believed they were ill prepared for a potential Ebola outbreak when cases started to emerge in the U.S. in 2014, according to a 2018 OIG report. About 71% of hospital administrators reported that their facilities were unprepared to receive Ebola patients. However, that figure improved when administrators were asked again in 2017, and only 14% said they were unprepared.
"Very few hospitals received suspected or diagnosed cases of Ebola, but the disease's presence caused hospitals to assess and improve their preparedness for Ebola and other [emerging infectious diseases]," the report stated.
The first U.S. patient showed up at one of Providence St. Joseph's 51 hospitals.
Rebecca Bartles, executive director of system infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph Health, told Healthcare Dive: "I don't think we could have done better. It was a very smooth response."
Bartles also noted that the system keeps up "a level of preparedness in our facilities all the time. Drilling for high-consequence disease happens routinely."
The focus for hospitals is screening and isolating potential patients with the virus. This type of preparation is standard and has yet to have any impact on hospital budgets, according to the hospital officials who spoke with Healthcare Dive. The nation's largest hospital operator, HCA, said similar diseases, such as SARS and MERS, have had no impact on its emergency rooms, as executives addressed invesotrs on a conference call this week to report its fourth-quarter earnings.
Many hospitals are instructing their staff to ask patients about travel history, even before they come in, especially if patients have symptoms that include a cough, fever or shortness of breath. Hospitals also are urging patients to alert providers of their travel history.
For patients who have recently traveled to Wuhan and exhibit those symptoms, they are then asked to put on a mask and escorted to a private room where a limited number of clinicians in protective gear will treat them, Alex Garza, chief medical officer with SSM Health, told Healthcare Dive.
Garza is in charge of leading the preparations for SSM Health's 23 hospitals throughout four Midwestern states. He formerly served as an assistant secretary and chief medical officer to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration.
While the number of cases is still limited, "You don't want to become over extended but you don't want to underreact either," Garza said.
It's important to be informed and stay ahead of the issue, but it's also important to put the coronavirus threat into perspective, Robert Citronberg, director of infectious diseases at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, told Healthcare Dive.
Thousands die from the flu each year and only a handful of patients have tested positive in the U.S. for this new strain of coronavirus in the U.S., said Citronberg, whose hospital is part of the larger system Advocate Aurora Health.
Federal health officials reiterated in a press briefing Tuesday morning that Americans should not worry for their own safety right now but said the disease is still "a potentially very serious public health threat."
The federal government is currently assessing the strategic national stockpile of pharmaceutical and medical supplies while assisting with develops of diagnostics, treatments and a potential vaccine, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said.
There are reports of consumers buying up masks as fear spreads about this virus, but federal officials said there is no need for general public to wear or buy respiratory masks.
This article has been updated to reflect the latest WHO figures.