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Local Health Departments' Coronavirus Plans Differ From County To County

Dr. Barbara Diane Wells finishes washing her hands, a task she says can go a long way to preventing the spread of coronavirus. (Brock Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

Local health departments are taking dramatically different approaches in preparing for a coronavirus outbreak. Those plans can vary widely depending on resources and whether a county has a critical access hospital or not.

The Fountain & Warren County Health Department is taking additional steps, it says it will further protect individuals amid a growing number of COVID-19 cases.  

The alert includes individuals who have travel histories outside of the United States, on cruise ships, or to high risk states. Those states include California, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington.

The department, which is Indiana's only two-county department, issued an alert Wednesday reccommending individuals self-isolate for 14 days whether they show symptoms of coronavirus or not.

Sean Sharma is the Health Officer for the Fountain & Warren County Health Department. He says these measures will help protect the most vulnerable populations.

"I think it’s critically important for public health to take a lead here," he says. "We have the authority to issue this guidance to our communities and I think we also have the duty to do that."

Sharma says he would be surprised if there is not already community spread of the disease occurring, and says these temporary steps will save lives and help restore normalcy faster.

However, in Owen County, it is largely life as usual.

"I don’t think there’s panic," Dr. Barbara Diane Wells says. She's an internal medicine physician and the Owen County Health Officer. "I haven’t heard of anyone cancelling church cancelling ball games, at this level whatsoever. I think, in my opinion rural people are kind of tough and they know life can be tough and they also know we don’t control a lot of things, and that common sense prevails."

Wells is not concerned with the small number of testing kits that have been distributed statewide.

"I don’t have a specific treatment except for your symptoms," she says. "So the fact that I can’t test you or everybody else who just happens to want to be tested, doesn’t change my behavior whatsoever."

Sharma does not agree.

"I think we are missing cases that should be identified," he says. "I know it's a challenege as far as testing and defining who a person who is under investigation, but right now I think we need to get the word out to individuals so they can identify who is at risk, what symptoms they need to worry about, and how they can get testing appropriately."

Despite well-documented shortages across the state — and country — Wells believes the attention given to the lack of testing capability is misguided.

"In my opinion at this point it is overblown," she says. "Having been in medicine for 30 or 40 years it’s also unreasonable to think that a new virus can come on the scene and that we would have the ability to test for it in the matter of weeks or months. That’s not the nature of the science and it never has been."

Currently, testing is available for patients exhibiting symptoms, but less severe cases still might not be identified.  Even if the standards change, Wells says there’s no way for her team at the health department or local doctors to test patients. 

That work is done at specialized hospitals.

"In order to be tested for the coronavirus, you need to go to the emergency room where they have a negative airflow room specially set back," she says. 

Wells says the closest hospital for Owen County residents will likely be located in Bloomington — which would mean at least a half hour drive. She says if people are concerned about the virus, simply washing their hands properly will help keep them healthy. 

But Sarma has additional advice.

"It's reasonable over the next thirty to sixty days to stay home, spend more time with family," she says. "Don't plan big trips because those places are still going to be there later, and there is a lot of uncertainty about where this situation is evolving." 

Sharma says the reccomendation is the same he would give and has already given to his own family.

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