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COVID-19 Looming, Agencies Discuss Preparations
The hospital at Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley is among the local providers logging data on flu cases that is sent to the Imperial County Department of Public Health. | Corissa Ibarra photo

With COVID-19 Looming, Agencies Discuss Preparations

IMPERIAL COUNTY — With the COVID-19 influenza virus making a seemingly inexorable march across the globe toward what some health experts have said will become a pandemic, localities such as those in Imperial County are faced with vital preparation tasks.

While no local cases had yet been reported as of March 4, the Imperial County Public Health Department has released an advisory of preventive measures individuals can take to reduce the chances of infection. These include :

• Washing hands often with soap and water

• Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands

• Stay home when you are sick

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick

• Cover your cough or sneeze

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces

As part of that advisory, Stephen Munday, the county public health officer and a physician, warned residents to also be cautious about acting on information received about COVID-19.

Assess Information

“As this situation progresses, most will encounter a lot of information related to COVID-19 on social media, television and other sources,” Munday stated.  “… please consider the source of the information you’re receiving. Sources such as the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control), California Department of Public Health, and Imperial County Public Health Department are continuing to monitor the situation, are regularly updating their information, and can be relied on to provide timely and accurate information.”

Meanwhile, organizations whose operations involve significant public contact, such as hospitals, schools and municipalities, are also exploring preventative measures.

“Public Health officials continue to work closely with state and federal agencies to assess for COVID-19 in our community,” Munday added. 

The agency’s “strong partnership” with Baja California Health officials allows the county to stay informed regarding the status of COVID-19 in Mexicali as well, he added.

Local Preparations Discussed

This newspaper contacted several local organizations for comment on their responses to date to the COVID-19 threat. Among the responses:

El Centro Regional Medical Center, Adolphe Edward, chief executive officer 

“ Imperial County does not have Covid testing capability which is not un-usual. Samples are sent to San Diego and results are back within 48 hrs. Commercial readily available testing should be on the scene by summer. We do involve our ECRMC infection control if we feel someone needs testing and that is what the healthcare systems do. They will then contact ICPHD (county Public Health), who will contact Dr. Steve Munday if there are any questions.

As was the case this Friday (Feb. 28) with the suspected Covid patient in Mexicali, we will not be able to block or control US citizens with Covid coming across the border. The case in question resulted negative for Covid (and positive for Flu) just as she was crossing the border. And that is as much as we know today.”

City of Calexico, David Dale, city manager

Dale said he had nothing to add because he did not want to mix messages coming out of the county.

“We’re in standby mode; wait and see what happens. Whatever we do, we want to coordinate with the county,” Dale explained.

Calexico Unified School District, Alejandra Limon, public information officer

“We are actively working with the (county) Health Department and any active information from the CDC  with regards to any steps we need to take at this moment.

Calexico Unified will follow CDC guidance, as well as the guidance from public health departments at the State and County levels to keep our student and staff populations safe and healthy. We will follow all directives from these agencies to reduce exposure in school. It is the public health department that decides on quarantines, school closures, and exclusion policy, not the school district.”

School officials sent out communications with staff on Feb. 27, posted information to its website and social media on Feb. 28 and sent texts out to parents March 2 regarding COVID-19 info.

Imperial County

The county has about 2,400 regular and extra-help employees. Because job duties and programs vary significantly from department to department, it is impossible to estimate the level of public interaction or possible exposure to COVID-19 each employee has on any given day, officials stated.  

Although there are differences with county staff providing direct services, such as those identified Public Health staff conducting disease investigations, all county staff are advised to follow the same recommend best practices to prevent illnesses as provided to the public. 

Imperial County Jail

To control exposure to inmates currently housed at the Imperial County Jail, the Sheriff’s Office, working through its medical provider, has added specific COVID-19-related questions to the screening process as new inmates are administered into the system.  In addition, each inmate has regularly scheduled medical examinations to assess their physical and mental wellbeing.  Protective equipment, including gloves and masks, are provided and worn by officers and Sheriff staff as needed. 

Imperial Valley College, Elizabeth Espinoza, interim communications officer

“Imperial Valley College is currently working in conjunction with the Imperial County Public Health Department on developing a plan regarding our campus community, should COVID-19, known as Coronavirus, come to the Imperial Valley. In an effort to increase awareness and prevention on our campus, we are closely monitoring developments involving the outbreak. The college is communicating to its campus community the CDC health guidelines on practicing good hygiene throughout the campus.”

Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District, Frank G. Salazar, director of communications

Is Pioneers doing anything or implementing any emergency measures to protect staff against the spread of COVID-19 or doing anything COVID-related for the public, either in Brawley or Calexico (due to health clinics)?

“In light of the recent outbreaks occurring around the nation and abroad, Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District is following the recommended personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines for employees (about 800 total) in direct contract with patients presenting and meeting the CDC screening signs and symptoms. We expect additional communications the rest of the week as the California HHS (Health and Human Services) Secretary coordinates with the CDC on the latest recommendations to the community, patients, and care givers. Our team is working closely with local public health officials to coordinate and develop measures to protect our employees, patients and visitors.”  

What are the COVID-19 related preparations looking like for the emergency room regarding the public, or at any of the health centers?

“Efforts are focused on appropriate screening and treatment of patients, visitor restrictions designed to protect employees, patients and visitors and surge capacity plans. PMHD also hosted a briefing with County Public Health officials, our medical staff and physicians on our efforts.”

How many people do PMHD staffers come in contact with on a daily basis? 

“Census numbers fluctuate as with any hospital setting, and we’re asking for everyone to do their best here and at home by protecting themselves by washing hands with soap and water, avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. Also, we ask that you avoid close contact with people who are sick and to stay away from work and school if you become sick with respiratory symptoms like fever and cough.”

Several contact attempts resulted in no immediate response from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Calexico east and west ports of entry border crossings.

Richard Montenegro Brown and William Roller contributed to this story.

This story is featured in the Mar 05, 2020 e-Edition.

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