Panhandle health care providers have yet to report any confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but residents should assume cases are in the community, health officials said during a briefing Thursday, March 19.

Kim Engel, Panhandle Public Health District executive director, has headed a daily briefing each day for the media, joined by members of a unified command team. During Thursday’s briefing, Scotts Bluff County Public Health Director Paulette Schnell provided an update that although there has been testing done throughout the week, no confirmed tests have been received. Four tests are currently pending.

“We do not want people to assume there are no COVID-19 cases in the community,” she said, noting that people need to continue to follow social distancing and other guidelines issued to the public. “There could very well be a case in our community in mild form.”

Engel said that the United States has seen cases following on the same trajectory as Italy, which is “really struggling right now. Their health care system is overwhelmed.” Italy has experienced cases doubling every two to three days. The United States is about 11 days behind Italy, she said.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control are asking that all travelers should follow instructions and self-quarantine, Engel said. Prior advice had been that people should contact health officials if they have traveled from a hot spot. Anyone who has returned home and is experiencing symptoms should immediately report to health officials. Health care workers should visit with their facilities about their policies as soon as they return from traveling.

Instructions for self-quarantining and for isolation are available on the PPHD website. Officials outlined that self-quarantining is for those who may have been exposed or traveled in an area or around individuals in which they may have been exposed.

If a person is asked to self-quarantine, “we want you to stay home,” Schnell said. “We want you to stay in your home, away from other people if they live in your house.”

If a person has been asked to isolate, they are experiencing symptoms but are not sick enough to be hospitalized. Schnell said 80% of people who are diagnosed with the coronavirus will suffer mild cases and will be asked to isolate. In both self-quarantine and isolation, people will be asked to separate themselves from other family members in the home to prevent exposing them.

As a community, Schnell said, people can step up and “be a good neighbor,” helping those asked to self-quarantine or isolate. People can take others items from the grocery store or things that they need, leaving things at the door or other places to help out.

Engel said that people will continue to be asked to follow the guidelines on social distancing, such as not gathering in groups of more than 10 and staying six feet apart.

“We should just assume that the virus is here and we want to stay apart so that we don’t get it,” she said. “We should also assume that we have the virus and don’t want to give it to people.”

The goal of social distancing is to “flatten the curve” of the spread of the coronavirus.

Schnell said that testing for COVID-19 does remain limited, primarily due to shortages in supplies such as the swabs used for the testing. Testing is being limited to inpatients who are ill and other diagnoses have been ruled out, and the vulnerable or high risk, such as health workers and public safety workers. Other supplies such as masks and gowns are also in limited supply and people are asked to allow those resources to be used by those who need them, such as those in the health care industry.

In a separate session on Thursday, PPHD team members had calls with people in the business community to share resources, such as information on grocery store and pharmacy etiquette, and strategies for businesses to accommodate restrictions. Examples businesses shared included restaurants still serving customers by providing drive-through or curbside delivery, keeping employees working by having them focus on repairs or other functions within a business and other strategies.

Childcare facilities also were provided information and resources in a call Thursday, discussing ways that facilities could provide services, while also abiding by social distancing and other guidelines. Business owners and child care owners can provide great opportunities for education, PPHD officials said.

Jessica Davies, one of the PPHD team who participated in the calls with business owners said, “Our goal is to flatten the curve. If we can keep that at the forefront, everything else, we can make do,” she said, referring to the “pioneer spirit of the Panhandle.”

For more resources on COVID-19, visit the PPHD website, pphd.org.

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