Hospital hosts coronavirus seminar

ALPINE — The Big Bend Regional Medical Center hosted a coronavirus seminar last week at the Parish Hall for Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church for representatives of Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio Counties.

Dr. Ekta Escovar opened by saying, “Panic and hysteria are not appropriate. There are no cases in the Big Bend, and we’re not like big cities that have lots more exposure.”

She said we need to keep living our lives but be informed so we know how to react if and when the virus arrives here.

And the likelihood is that it will, because she said the worldwide spread of the disease is “inevitable.”

The formal name is COVID-19 and the virus is called SARS CoV-2.

The virus is similar to the SARS epidemic of 2002 and the MERS in 2012 and, while the fatality rate was substantially higher with the earlier diseases, this one is significantly more contagious.

Ten percent of SARS cases were fatal, and one in three MERS cases were fatal whereas the fatality rate for COVID-19 is 3.4 percent, and that includes China. The U.S. death rate is 0.17.

“The problem with this is it is highly contagious,” she said. “There are 124 cases in the U.S. and 11 of those were person-to-person. And it can take up to three weeks before a patient knows he is sick.

“The purpose of this seminar is to prepare in case it comes here,” she said.

Symptoms are a fever of 101 degrees or more, aches and a dry cough. It affects only 1.4 percent of healthy people. Those with other health problems are much higher, with up to 13.2 percent for those with cardiovascular disease, for example.

The average age of those affected is 47 and 41 percent are female. It affects mostly older citizens, but children have much lower percentages – with zero for those under 9. And 83 percent of cases will be mild to moderate. Recovery can be two weeks for moderate cases but up to six weeks for severe or critical cases.

However, there is no reported case of someone with COVID-19 coming down with another disease at the same time.

“Containment is key.” Dr. Escovar said. “China was reporting more than 1,000 new cases per day at the peak, but it is now down to three per day. They did that with aggressive containment.”

COVID-19 is spread by droplets from coughing or sneezing, which can travel about three feet. But contact can also be made by touching droplets on surfaces. Prevention includes frequent handwashing and not touching your face. By touching an affected surface and then your face, you can transfer the virus through the eyes, nose or mouth.

She suggests people clean surfaces frequently with sanitizers. The virus can live up to nine days on porous surfaces and up to 27 days on nonporous surfaces, given the right conditions.

Dr. Escovar said travel should be avoided whenever possible, especially to the West Coast, East Coast or the Chicago area, and affected countries outside the U.S. with emphasis on China, South Korea, Italy and Iran, where numerous cases have been reported.

With many members of law enforcement and Border Patrol in the audience, Escovar said that border apprehensions are very low risk. These are people who have been crossing the desert for weeks and have had little to no contact with other people.

Dr. Escovar stressed that if you think you have been exposed, do not go to the emergency room and infect others. Call your regular doctor, as they know you best. If you do have to go to the hospital, call them first so they can prepare a contained space for you. If you are infected, call the Health Department and report it.

She said the closest lab to test for COVID-19 is in El Paso, as the hospital in Alpine does not have the ability to test for it.

Vaccines can take 18 to 20 months to be approved, though one was identified in just three days, she said. Antivirals are being developed, but none show promise thus far.

Hotels, motels and short-term rentals should be alerted to take extra precaution for guest rooms.

Dr. Escovar said people should be wary of touching things like steering wheels, light switches or anything others may have touched when the disease is present.