Pitt, City provide updates on coronavirus outbreak plans

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Photo via Dr. Fred Murphy | CDC

Pitt announced it is reviewing its pandemic preparedness plan, which includes setting up a centralized website for reliable updates about the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first possible community spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in a U.S. patient hospitalized in Sacramento, California, this Wednesday. The patient is the 15th person diagnosed in the United States with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, along with 39 other U.S. residents who were infected in other parts of the world. Cases have been reported in more than 45 countries around the world, with more than 2,800 deaths.

Although no cases have been reported in Pennsylvania, the City Department of Public Safety and Pitt’s Vice Provost and Dean of Students provided updates Thursday on their response plans for a possible coronavirus outbreak.

Pitt announced that it is reviewing its pandemic preparedness plan, which includes setting up a centralized website, emergency.pitt.edu, for reliable updates about the disease. Pitt also cancelled or changed the venue for spring semester and spring break programming in China, following a do not travel advisory issued by the U.S. Department of State.

In a campus-wide email sent out Thursday, Bonner cautioned students against discriminating or targeting international Asian-American students because of the outbreak.

“This type of treatment is wrong, insensitive, harmful, and contrary to the University’s values,” Bonner said. “Although this outbreak started in China, having Chinese ancestry — or any other ancestry — does not place a person at higher risk for the illness.”

Pitt researchers are working to alleviate the spread of the disease. At a Senate Council meeting on Feb. 13, Dr. Paul Duprex, the Jonas Salk chair for vaccine research and director of Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research, said Pitt scientists will receive samples of SARS-CoV-2 to develop a vaccine or intervention method.

Duprex said vaccine development will not be easy, but it is important work.

“We have a disease which is new, we have a disease which is spreading and we have no ability to intervene in that infection,” Duprex said.

At the City level, the Department of Public Safety said in a Thursday press release it has finished updating its 2015 pandemic operational plan. This updated contingency plan included ensuring additional EMS personnel and units are available if needed, as well as inspecticing current vehicles.

First responders have also been trained to properly identify and treat coronavirus cases. During the training, EMS workers received “enhanced personal protection kits” that contain face masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and protective eyewear, in case they encounter someone with the virus.

Recommendations from the World Health Organization to prevent further spread of coronavirus include regular handwashing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs.

Wendell Hissrich, the City public safety director, said in the release that he is thankful that Pittsburgh hasn’t experienced an outbreak of the coronavirus so far, but the Department is prepared if it does spread.

“While we are pleased that no cases have appeared in this area yet, we will be ready if any cases do appear here,” Hissrich said. “We prepare for any and all types of threats, whether it be flooding concerns, large snowfalls, extreme heat, large gatherings in the city or Presidential and dignitary visits. We always prepare, and we’ll be prepared for this as well.”

Pitt students can contact the Student Health Service at 412-383-1800, and Pitt faculty and staff, can contact the Employee Health Clinic at 412-647-4949.

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