With the first case of coronavirus reported in Delaware on Wednesday, governments, schools, emergency responders and other organizations here in Newark are taking precautions and formulating contingency plans.
State officials announced that a University of Delaware professor has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has rapidly spread around the globe.
The professor is a man from New Castle County who is over 50 and was exposed to another confirmed COVID-19 case in another state. He is not severely ill and self-isolated at home as soon as symptoms appeared, officials said.
State health officials are working to identify anyone who was in close contact with the man and could have been exposed.
“The patient is doing well. We understand that news of a positive case in the state is concerning, but this is something we have been preparing for over the last several weeks,” said DPH Director Dr. Karyl Rattay. “DPH is working closely with CDC, hospitals, clinicians, and other medical providers to proactively identify and respond to any possible cases of the coronavirus disease 2019. We will continue to keep the public fully informed as additional information becomes available.”
In response to the presumptive positive case, UD has moved classes online for the rest of the semester, President Dennis Assanis said.
Classes are suspended immediately, and the university has moved up its spring break to begin Saturday. When classes resume March 23, they will be taught online only.
Residence halls are remaining open.
“I know this is an anxious time for all of us, and I thank you for your ongoing patience, flexibility and dedicated attention to the health of our community,” Assanis wrote in a letter to students. “Please know that we will do everything we can to return UD to its normal rhythm of campus activity as soon as possible so that we can be a healthy and productive academic community that is making a difference in the world.”
The university also canceled large events – most notably the March 22 UDance fundraiser, a 12-hour dance marathon which draws thousands of students to the Bob Carpenter Center and last year raised $2 million for childhood cancer research. In addition, the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association announced plans to reschedule the high school basketball championship games that were slated to be played at the Bob this week, after UD officials said they would not permit spectators. UD’s spring sports teams also will play their games without spectators.
Even before the positive case was announced, all around Newark this week, there were signs residents are taking the possibility of an outbreak seriously.
At Newark’s city hall, a sign on the door informs visitors that “city facilities are going hand-shake free.”
Local public schools are stepping up classroom cleaning and reviewing options for online instruction in the event of extended closures.
At drug stores and supermarkets, the shelves are empty of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and in some cases, toilet paper and paper towels.
During a ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Chemours headquarters at UD’s STAR Campus, large bottles of hand sanitizer flanked each entrance, and Assanis welcomed Chemours CEO Mark Vergnano with an elbow bump instead of a handshake.
Gov. John Carney postponed a town hall meeting planned for the Newark Senior Center “out of an abundance of caution,” a spokeswoman said.
As of Wednesday, there have been 125,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 4,600 deaths worldwide, including 1,279 cases and 37 deaths in the United States.
Local schools ‘watching and monitoring’ coronavirus
As of Wednesday, no local public schools had closed due to coronavirus. However, they are formulating contingency plans to do so if the outbreak comes to Delaware.
“All of our districts across the state are thinking about this and either dusting off their infection control plan or actually putting plans in place specifically for coronavirus and really thinking about what will be done if a school needs to be closed,” Rattay said in a briefing Tuesday.
In other areas of the country, including Chester County, Pa., and Camden County, N.J., a growing number of schools have closed in order to slow down the spread of the virus. While children haven’t been hit as hard by the virus, health officials believe kids can spread the virus to more vulnerable adults.
“We don’t know if schools will be closed in Delaware,” Rattay said. “That could happen for a variety of reasons. If there have been sick individuals in a school, you might close it for a day or so and decontaminate it. If there’s widespread infection in a community, a school could be closed just to help settle down the infection or decrease the spread of the infection.”
In collaboration with other school districts, the Christina School District released a pandemic action plan that spells out graduated measures the district will take. According to the plan, now that there has been a confirmed case in New Castle County, the district will consider limiting outside group events being held in school buildings, consider limiting student and staff travel and consider limiting audience attendance at district events.
Schools will close if there is a confirmed case involving the district or when the virus is widespread in New Castle County.
In a letter to parents last week, Christina School District Superintendent Richard Gregg said the district has been reviewing its emergency preparedness plans in case of a widespread outbreak that requires more action.
“Our custodial teams are cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, countertops, keyboards, desks, etc.,” Gregg added. “Teachers are directing students to wash their hands regularly and cover their mouths when they sneeze and cough. School bus drivers are also reinforcing steps to avoid the spread of illness. We encourage students, staff and families to follow the same practices that help prevent the spread of the flu and other illnesses.”
Frank Newton, director of Newark Charter School, said he and his staff are “watching and monitoring” the coronavirus and recently met to review the school’s pandemic procedures.
“I’m trying to help people be appropriately concerned without being over-the-top concerned,” Newton said.
NCS is reviewing its options for online instruction in the event of an extended closure. High school students all have school-issued Chromebooks, but teaching online would be more difficult for the younger grades, Newton added.
The school has canceled certain field trips, and the custodial staff has been doing enhanced cleaning in classrooms since the start of flu season.
City making preparations in case of a quarantine
City of Newark officials have spent the last week making preparations to ensure the continuance of the government in the event that a large number of employees have to stay home.
City Manager Tom Coleman said he plans to ask employees who can work from home to do so for a day as a test run to make sure the city’s IT infrastructure can handle it.
“One of the bigger issues we have here is we are pretty public facing. We need to continue to be able to take utility payments and process permits and that kind of thing,” Coleman said Monday, encouraging residents to sign up for online bill paying if they have not already done so. “We’re trying to figure out more ways we can do that without people having to physically come into the building in the event that we get closed down by the CDC or something as this progresses.”
Newark spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said the city has given rubber gloves to customer service employees who handle cash payments and is equipping police officers, code enforcement officers and other frontline employees with sanitary wipes, masks and other personal protection items.
“They can’t hunker down in their offices like others can,” Gravell said.
Some of the supplies have been hard to come by, as suppliers nationwide have been selling out of products, but Gravell noted that some city employees have brought in supplies from home to give to the police officers.
The custodial staff has increased cleaning in city facilities, and Gravell added that one employee is spending his entire shift each day disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces.
Another concern is how to hold council meetings in the case of a quarantine, because an attempt to hold them remotely or via phone would run afoul of open meeting laws.
“It seems to me it ought to be, in the case of a state of emergency declared by the mayor or whoever is acting in that capacity, that the state should waive the in-person requirements just so the business of government can continue,” Councilman Stu Markham said.
Aetna equips EMTs with protective gear
Deputy Chief Jeff Sands, a spokesman for Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company, said the fire department has been having internal conversations about preparing for coronavirus and has stocked up on protective gear for emergency medical technicians.
New Castle County 911 dispatchers have a detailed screening process that asks callers about travel history and other risk factors.
If a patient is deemed to be at risk of having COVID-19, dispatchers will alert the responding EMTs. The EMTs and ambulance driver will then don protective gear, including a disposable gown, gloves, eye protection and an N95 mask, Sands said.
So far, Aetna hasn’t had any trouble obtaining protective gear, he added. Manufacturers have been increasing production, and the state health department has a stockpile from which Aetna could request equipment if needed.
Aetna also has an established protocol for disinfecting the ambulance after transporting an infected patient.
Sands noted that dealing with airborne illnesses is nothing new for EMTs.
“This isn’t unprecedented, it’s just more widespread,” he said.
Newark Senior Center sees decrease in attendance
At the Newark Senior Center, there has been a noticeable decrease in attendance this week, Executive Director Carla Grygiel said.
Seniors are at a particular risk for COVID-19, and this week, state officials urged people who are over 60 or have chronic health issues to avoid large crowds.
“Our plan is to stay open as long as we can. We’ll evaluate things on a daily basis,” Grygiel said, adding that she urges any members who are concerned to exercise caution when deciding whether to come to the center. “Each person needs to judge for themselves the best way to handle it.”
The virus has been a big topic of conversation at the senior center, she said.
“People are definitely concerned about it,” Grygiel said. “They’re asking what we’re doing.”
The center posted signs reminding members to wash their hands and avoid handshakes. It recently added hand sanitizer dispensers and upgraded its cleaning protocols, but those were actions taken prior to the coronavirus scare.
Many members, though, are taking the issue in stride.
“They’re aware,” Grygiel said. “They’re not shaking hands, they’re bumping elbows, but people are still coming.”
Even if a worsening outbreak forces the senior center to close, the organization remains committed to serving its Meals on Wheels clients.
“We’re not going to abandon them as we deal with coronavirus,” she said.