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Emergency preparedness experts stress the need to plan for coronavirus outbreak

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is suggesting hospitals, schools and businesses have plans in place to react to a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

ATLANTA — The coronavirus is at the top of minds for healthcare professionals and many American across the nation.

While there is still only a small number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States, health experts still believe preparedness is vital.

"We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for the expectation that this could be bad," Dr. Nancy Messonnier with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday while discussing the virus.

"I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe," Messonnier said, who is the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. 

Messonnier said communities need to prepare now in case the virus develops into a pandemic. She suggested schools prepare to put students in smaller groups or close schools and use internet-based teleschooling in the event of an outbreak. 

Atlanta Public Schools, the DeKalb County School District and Gwinnett County Public Schools all confirm with 11Alive that they're in close contact with local, state and federal agencies about the coronavirus. The district said they are preparing to react accordingly and will provide updates to students, parents, and staff as needed.

Messonnier said businesses should prepare to replace in-person meetings with video/telephone conferences, increase teleworking options, and communities should anticipate postponing or canceling large gatherings.

Curt Harris, director of the University of Georgia's Institute for Disaster Management, told 11Alive part of preparing involves everyone staying updated on the virus by seeking out verified information.

"We don’t want to get into the issue of fear-mongering where things are being put out there that are simply not true. So, make sure you’re getting information from the CDC or your state department of public health, or World Health Organization, not buying into propaganda.”

He added that you also should remain updated on the virus, as researchers are constantly learning about the virus.

"Just because they put things out today doesn’t mean that isn’t going to change tomorrow and that isn’t because we just made something up the day before, but it is because we are truthfully learning about what this virus is and how to best protect ourselves,” Harris said.

On the state level in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp on Wednesday said his office is ready if any sort of coronavirus outbreak happens.

"Hopefully it won't be much, but if it is, we'll be ready to respond," Kemp said.

The governor said state officials have been in meetings and conference calls "for the last three weeks or so in preparation for the 'what if,'" including two conference calls he personally took with President Donald Trump's team, other governors and public health officials. 

Kemp said his team is thinking far ahead, but remaining  hopeful that an outbreak won't happen in Georgia.

Harris said if it does though, the Georgia Department of Health and hospitals in Georgia are prepared because of plans made in reaction to Ebola several years ago.

“In Georgia, they developed an entire infectious disease network. They knew of the potential of other infectious diseases to happen within the United States," Harris said. "We didn’t anticipate coronavirus, but even if it was just influenza, they use a lot of the resources that were available for Ebola and they turned it into all-hazards infectious disease preparedness.”

The Georgia Department of Public Health released a statement Wednesday saying its goal is to quickly identify cases of the illness and take the appropriate health public heath action to reduce its spread. 

“We urge Georgians to prepare for hurricanes or flooding or take measures to prevent flu, so preparing for an outbreak of COVID-19 is no different,” said Kathleen E. Toomey, M.D., M.P.H., DPH commissioner. “DPH is working to make sure our health systems, first responders and county health departments have the resources they need to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak.”

The statement also said that DPH epidemiologists are on-call 24/7 to help health care providers evaluate individuals presenting with symptoms of COVID-19 to ensure that possible cases are managed safely.

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On an individual level, Messonnier suggested asking questions about how your child's school plans to handle dismissals or closures, what you would do if your child's school or daycare closed and if your employer has teleworking options. 

The CDC suggested also taking prevention steps such as avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, stay home when sick, wear a facemask only if you're showing symptoms of COVID-19, washing your hands often, and cleaning frequently touched objects with regular household cleaning sprays or wipes. 

People are also being told by the CDC to wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap isn't available they should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

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Harris said as the U.S. is also in the middle of a severe flu season, seeking treatment early and avoiding other people when feeling ill is key - whether you have the flu or another virus.

"Those good practices of isolating yourself, seeking treatment when you start to develop symptoms, so they don’t get worse over time. Coughing into your elbow. All of those things are still good practices.”

While the flu and coronavirus share many symptoms, Harris said context is important when talking with others or contacting your hospital about seeking medical attention.

"So if you’re calling in and you’ve come into contact with no one that visited the area of China and you haven’t traveled there yourself, particularly in the U.S. and in Georgia right now, the chances of you having coronavirus are very slim to almost none," Harris said. "But if you have had those high-risk exposures then the potential is there, and you need to be checked out.”

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