From travel to testing: Panel of experts answers your questions on the coronavirus

Panel of government officials, health care experts outline state’s preparation for coronavirus

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the coronavirus outbreak worsens globally, Hawaii government officials say they’re in “containment mode” ― hoping to catch any potential cases early and prevent a spread of the virus in the community,

“If we we see community spread, it will be a game changer for us,” said state Health Department Director Bruce Anderson. “We’ll have to carefully consider what the consequences are.”

Anderson was among a host of government and medical experts invited to a Sunrise panel on Thursday morning to discuss the outbreak and what residents can do to keep themselves safe.

[Read more: U.S. coronavirus death toll hits 11; Senate vote sends Trump $8.3B bill]

They tackled dozens of questions from viewers, including how testing of the virus works and how schools are preparing for potential cases in Hawaii.

  • Should travel be postponed amid the outbreak?

Americans are being urged not to travel to certain places, including China, Italy and Iran.

But Gov. David Ige also urged residents to limit discretionary travel elsewhere, including to the mainland. There have been cases of community spread of the virus in Washington state and California.

Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto added that families are having to make some tough decisions ahead of spring break about planned travel.

And all schools are conducting an inventory of their upcoming travel to determine whether students should still go. It’s a tough calculus, Kishimoto said, as many of the trips aren’t refundable.

  • How is testing for the coronavirus conducted?

The State Laboratory is now equipped to test for the coronavirus, and has so far tested seven people in the islands. All of those tests have come back negative, Green said.

He added that patients won’t be responsible for the costs of the tests.

And state officials are working to further ramp up testing now that the CDC has lifted restrictions on who is eligible. He said Hawaii’s lab is capable of testing about 250 cases a week.

The next step, Green said, will be to dial up testing at private labs.

  • How will the state respond to a confirmed case of coronavirus?

Ige said the state will “err on the side of caution,” and begin to take action even if a case is suspected.

That might mean coming up with a plan of action to determine who the sick individual came into contact with.

Kishimoto said schools are also working to ensure surfaces are sanitized and employees are communicating with administrators about any travel to affected areas.

“This is about being ready," she said.

When asked whether the state would consider instituting broader quarantines, Ige said that’s part of the discussion. He said agencies are reviewing their epidemic response plans.

In the meantime, he said, employees should “stay home if they’re sick,”

  • What are the symptoms of coronavirus versus the flu or common cold?

Health experts stress the main symptoms of the coronavirus are fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Unlike the common cold, people who have the coronavirus do not always have a sore throat.

Though the differences between the coronavirus and the influenza aren’t too clear at this time, what is known is that the coronavirus seems to be more severe.

“It is more likely to cause a fatality, especially among old people, if one gets it,” Green said.

Health experts urge people to call their doctor when they start feeling sick, but to stay calm.

“It's most likely you have a cold or flu,” said Dr. Melinda Ashton, vice president and chief quality officer for Hawaii Pacific Health. “We don't have any evidence yet of coronavirus here in Hawaii. So it would be very unlikely that someone would just randomly be the first case with a mild symptom.”

If symptoms are mild, you most likely have a basic cold and don’t need to be hospitalized.

“You don't want to be in the emergency waiting room, you don't want to be in the hospital where there are other sick people,” Green said. “Call your provider.”

  • What is the current status of developing a vaccine for coronavirus?

At this time, it’s not exactly known when a vaccine will be ready, but it could take at least a year.

“The pharmaceutical companies have an interest because they anticipate there will be a demand for this disease in the years and decades to come,” said Hilton Raethel, president and CEO of Healthcare Association of Hawaii.

Experts believe the coronavirus won’t be going away anytime soon ― similar to the flu.

“This is going to stay and the vaccination is going to be annual,” said Dr. Takkin Lo, pulmonologist specialist for Adventist Health Castle. “It's gonna be the new normal.”

  • In the event of an outbreak, are hospitals prepared?

The short answer? Yes.

There are currently enough beds for isolation, Green said, and the hospitals can make adjustments ― such as clearing out wings where people aren’t needed ― if necessary.

In addition, hospitals are in the midst of conducting drills to handle the coronavirus.

“We are health professionals. We are prepared. We know how to do this,” Lo said.

When it comes to supplies, an emergency services coalition has a large cache of backup supplies so facilities can tap into that stash if there’s a shortage.

And in the wake of the coronavirus, manufacturers are prioritizing the health care industry.

  • Does the virus live on money or can it spread through the mail?

Probably not.

Unlike Hepatitis A, the virus only stays on surfaces for a few hours or a day at the most. And the virus is spread through airborne transmission.

It’s highly unlikely that a virus would stay on mail, especially given the time it takes to get to your destination.

A good precaution: Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face.

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