Wash your hands, stay home if you're sick, and don't panic.
That was the message that a panel of experts conveyed Wednesday afternoon during a public forum about the coronavirus, held in the University of Delaware's Mitchell Hall.
The event featured UD professors from multiple disciplines as well as officials from the Delaware Division of Public Health and Christiana Hospital. It was aimed at educating students and community members about the virus that has sickened 95,000 people and killed 3,200 worldwide as well as discussing how the state and the university are preparing for the possibility of a local outbreak.
While there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus, also referred to as COVID-19, in Delaware, Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay said that is likely to change at some point.
“Community spread is likely,” Rattay said. “We are expecting to see COVID-19 circulating in our community.”
She said state health officials have been preparing since January and now have the capability to test for the virus locally, rather than having to send the samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier on Wednesday, the state opened a call center to field questions from the public about coronavirus. Residents can call 1-866-408-1899 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, or email DPHCall@delaware.gov.
Timothy Dowling, director of UD's Student Health Services, said the university has been preparing for coronavirus since mid-January, just as it did for past outbreaks of zika, ebola and other diseases.
“We drill annually for medical challenges we may see on campus,” Dowling added.
UD has developed triage and isolation procedures in case students are infected and has held coordination meetings with everyone from senior administrators to custodians.
“We all come together as a team to talk about what we're going to do as a university,” Dowling said.
Last week, UD instructed 22 students who were studying abroad in Rome to return home immediately after a coronavirus outbreak in Italy. The students are being asked to stay at home for two weeks before coming back to campus, or they can complete the semester online.
On Friday, UD announced that it was banning university-sponsored travel to China, South Korea, Iran and Italy and discouraging travel to Japan. Anyone returning from those countries is required to be quarantined at their permanent home residence before returning to campus.
Officials are also asking UD groups to consider postponing or canceling large gatherings involving outside visitors.
The university is still determining what precautions or advisories to issue regarding travel for spring break, which begins at the end of the month.
Dowling noted that UD will take advantage of lessons learned in 2009, when an outbreak of H1N1 “swine flu” hit campus. Two-dozen students were sickened, and hundreds more were checked out in a makeshift health clinic set up in the campus gym. Classes continued, but large gatherings and sporting events were canceled.
Timothy Bowers, director of infection prevention at ChristianaCare, said the most important things people can do to prevent coronavirus is to make sure they wash their hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and stay home from work or school when they feel sick.
"As a leader, I try to be there for my people, but if I come in when I'm sick, what if two or three others catch what I have?” Bowers said. “We all have that drive to be there for our people, but unfortunately that drive sometimes causes our people to have to make the same decision about coming to work sick.”
He also advised people to turn to trusted sources for information about coronavirus and other health topics, rather than listening to misinformation and baseless theories that abound online and on social media.
“Garlic may prevent vampires, but it will not prevent coronavirus,” he quipped, referring to a false claim he saw online.
Epidemiology professor Jennifer Horney said that reading reports about coronavirus can be scary, but it’s important to put the danger in perspective.
“We're really bad at knowing what we should be afraid of,” Horney said, noting that one in five deaths is caused by poor diet. “I'll just leave you with that thought about how you prioritize things that concern you.”