U. of C. Medical Center prepares protocol in response to coronavirus but says preparations are different from epidemics like Ebola

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. (Courtesy of the CDC)

Staff writer

As the World Health Organization declares a global health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak, the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) has established a protocol should the hospital need to treat infected patients.

Unlike during the Ebola virus epidemic in 2014, however, the UCMC is not one of Chicago’s designated facilities to deal with infections should they arise locally. On Thursday, UCMC Infection Control Program Director Rachel Marrs clarified that every hospital is individually capable of screening for infections.

The UCMC is operating under criteria set by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which encompass clinical features such as fever, coughing or difficulty breathing alongside epidemiological risks such travel to the disease’s epicenter, Wuhan, China. Other factors include close contact with a confirmed or an under-investigation ill person.

Should patients meet those criteria, the UCMC would seek CDC approval to test for coronavirus and send blood and respiratory samples to CDC headquarters in Atlanta for confirmation.

The UCMC has no designated, preemptive unit for coronavirus cases. Marrs said screening at the hospital would occur at entry points like clinical appointments or the emergency room followed by testing as necessary and finding an appropriate, nearby facility for treatment.

“We are prepared, if we have a patient, that we could treat them here,” Marrs said, though she said any hospital could care for infected patients.

Marrs observed that the CDC currently thinks the novel coronavirus is more contagious than SARS or MERS, which belong to the same family of viruses, but is less deadly. Nevertheless, Marrs said the new virus is still evolving and said she could not predict what the CDC would find as far as its infectability and mortality.

The United States reported its first person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus on Jan. 30, as a woman who contracted the infection in Wuhan infected her spouse in Chicago. In a statement, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said the risk to the general public in Illinois is low.

“Local, state and federal health officials are working to identify those who have had close contact with the individual,” said Ezike, ordering “protective measures to minimize further spread of the virus.”

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said there is no local emergency at this time and told residents that they do not need to cancel events, avoid mass gatherings or don masks or gloves in public.

“Currently, there’s not widespread activity,” Marrs said, adding that much depends on the result of the WHO emergency and whether more flights are canceled to and from China. “I think our response has to be based on risk to both our patients and the community.”

In the meantime, Marrs recommended that the public follow “general good respiratory etiquette,” like covering coughs, washing hands and wearing masks in the case of sickness.

“There’s no need to have a general concern by residents,” she said. “The activity is still very, very low, so you definitely don’t need to go buy masks for coronavirus. If you have respiratory symptoms due to any sort of virus, you’d want to wear a mask. But you don’t need to wear a mask for coronavirus.”