The emergence of a coronavirus, a new respiratory illness linked to the death of a doctor in Saudi Arabia, has provoked nervousness about how hospitals are handling the threat.
State health officials are calling an emergency conference to assess preparedness for the virus, called the novel coronavirus or NCoV. While coronaviruses have been found in humans for hundreds of years, this is the first instance of any form in the Middle East.
We spoke with Rob Cardwell, director of public health emergency planning and preparedness at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, about the virus, how to be prepared and the role of hospitals in responding to public health emergencies. Here's the edited transcript of that conversation.
Q. What is NCoV and why is it so different from other coronaviruses?
A. It’s a virus that was identified about two years ago, around June, 2016. It has close similarities with other coronaviruses, but at this point, it is unusual for them to have been transmitted to humans.
So far it has been a respiratory disease, which is different from what people are familiar with when they think of SARS and other respiratory diseases. This is a new virus so we don’t really know anything about how it behaves, but what we know about the coronavirus family is that if you’re very, very young and very elderly, you’re more likely to have acquired the disease, and that this virus was found on a single death patient in 2017.
Q. Does this present a public health emergency?
A. You can talk about an emergency that happens relatively quickly and certainly, within the next week, here's a very rapid response from the health department on what they’re going to do to respond to this public health situation. If you go a little bit further, it's not an emergency, and it’s in the middle — is it a public health situation? Is there something more down the road?
But there’s always more to be done as far as organizing and preparing.
Q. How has the emergence of the virus shifted how people at UCLA plan?
A. UCLA is one of the largest schools of medicine in the world, and we’re primarily a teaching hospital. We teach the basic science aspects and we teach the basic science nuances around epidemiology and other things in respect to epidemics. This is a big change in terms of our understanding and our information about what is going on in the world and what is the potential situation to occur.
And then of course, you put that into the equation with the actual event that happened at a conference in Germany where at least two people — a 33-year-old woman and a 73-year-old man — came down with very similar symptoms, very mild symptoms.
They tested them, their immune systems didn’t attack the virus, they were still contagious and they died. And they had these same symptoms.
Q. What has been UCLA’s response?
A. The UCLA medical campus has largely been brought back to normal, so we’re also looking at the team that is reacting to the situation to make sure that we're managing what we know is there and those who we have come across in the last couple of days, still in the community, could potentially be the cases and then whether we need to increase our intensity in terms of understanding this virus and be in the clinical field so that we’re able to disseminate that to the community.
For now we feel OK, it’s a relatively small occurrence, but we will be going back to work.
We’re putting in things around infection control, infection prevention, and hand hygiene. We’re increasing communication with our colleagues around the state and around the country, trying to determine where we should be getting information. And we’re still working with our hospitals and providing our hospital staff all that they can possibly do to answer the questions of any patient that comes in, particularly patients who have respiratory illnesses.
This is not something that’s going to last, so we can take what are somewhat small numbers and really do something to address it.
This is a significant event and, like anything else, some plans go into place that don’t fit the situation, and we'll have to adjust those accordingly.
That’s a little bit of the challenge. This is the type of scenario you try to plan for and set up as far in advance as you can, so that you have enough time to adapt. And what’s happened in recent weeks is a case study in some of that.