The day before the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China had become a health emergency, the Fire Department issued a two-page directive to workers about the outbreak and precautions on dealing with any potential cases they might encounter.
For the city’s first-responders, the outbreak means taking extra precautions and asking additional questions to members of the public they come in contact with who are complaining about flu-like symptoms.
First Case in Chicago
On Jan. 30, the day the WHO’s advisory was issued, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first known instance of a human-to-human transmission in the U.S. when a woman returning home to Chicago exposed her husband to the respiratory disease.
The outbreak was first reported in late December and has since spread to 23 countries outside of China, with 12,000 cases resulting in 300 deaths.
“It’s inevitable that we will have someone who is positive with coronavirus,” Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city’s Health Commissioner, told reporters Jan. 24. She said symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, and a low-grade fever.
On Jan. 29, the FDNY issued the directive to all its Emergency Medical Service providers and voluntary hospital EMS personnel, as well as 911 dispatchers handing medical emergencies.
Started in Wuhan Market
“All patients presented with fever or respiratory symptoms and ultimately were diagnosed with pneumonia,” according to the directive. “All initial cases were deemed to have contact with a seafood market in Wuhan China which also traded other livestock. Since then, WHO has reported that person-to-person transmission, although low, has been confirmed."
In cases when first-responders are called for an airport transfer, where a passenger has been identified with fever and symptoms, at the time of screening the FDNY directs: “follow all respiratory protection precautions including donning a gown, eye protection, gloves, and an N95 mask.”
The advisory calls for a surgical mask to be placed on the patient to minimize the spread of infection and directs responders to constantly monitor the patient’s airway and breathing.
“All routine decontamination procedures shall be followed,” the FDNY advises. “Frequent hand washing is also recommended. Providers should avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.”
According to NPR, there were six confirmed cases in the U.S.
Previous WHO emergencies have included Ebola and Zika. So far, the spread of the coronavirus is outpacing the 2003 SARS outbreak in China.
This health emergency coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year and prompted Chinese authorities to enforce strict travel restrictions on 15 cities in the central Chinese province of which Wuhan is the capital.
Countries including the United States have evacuated their citizens and embassy personnel from China. Other signs of concern locally included postponement of a weekend banquet in Flushing and usually bustling restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown only half-full during lunch hour.
According to a fact sheet issued by Governor Cuomo, several New York State residents who had recently arrived from China were screened but came up negative for the virus, which health officials say has a two 2-to-14-day incubation period.
The Centers for Disease Control was screening passengers who arrived at JFK airport from China. Special attention has been paid to college students who may have recently traveled from the central Chinese province where the disease first was detected.
Could Overwhelm EMS
“We have trouble keeping up with our current call volume,” said Vincent Variale, president of District Council 37’s Local 3621, which represents EMS officers. “If NYC experiences a coronavirus outbreak, I don’t know if we have the resources to handle it.”
“The Bronx is already overwhelmed to the point that we are now sending Queens resources to cover just the existing high call volume there on a daily basis,” said Oren Barzilay, president of DC 37’s Local 2507, which represents EMTs and Paramedics.