Four patients who have tested positive for the new strain of coronavirus arrived at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center on Thursday to receive treatment in the hospital’s special pathogens unit, one of 10 units in the country with federal certifications to treat highly infectious diseases.
The patients, all U.S. citizens, arrived at Spokane International Airport aboard a specialized medical transport plane. The plane made two flights, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, from Travis Air Force Base in Sacramento, California.
All four patients were in satisfactory condition. They are expected to receive treatment at Sacred Heart for at least two weeks in line with isolation protocols established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Local health officials and Sacred Heart executives stressed that the risk to the general public in Spokane for contracting the novel coronavirus is low.
“Because of the well-practiced processes, this is a controlled situation,” said Dr. Bob Lutz, a board member and health officer of the Spokane Regional Health District. “There is no risk to the residents of Spokane County by bringing these individuals into our community for care.”
Federal agencies sent the patients to Spokane as part of an effort to repatriate U.S. citizens from China and other countries impacted by the coronavirus.
Lutz said the four patients are being treated at Sacred Heart at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Local health officials did not say where the four patients had come from, but The Associated Press, citing CDC officials, reported that they had been passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, which has been under strict quarantine with hundreds of confirmed coronavirus cases among people on board.
Late last week, there were 15 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The first reported case was diagnosed and treated in Everett.
Those numbers appear to have grown as repatriation efforts have continued. About 400 U.S. citizens were aboard the Diamond Princess, and the CDC initially set up quarantine sites for then at the air force base in Sacramento and Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. Passengers from the cruise ship were housed separately from other quarantined U.S. citizens, the CDC said on Saturday.
Two days later, 13 cruise ship passengers arrived for further treatment and testing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has a 20-bed special pathogens unit. Staff there treated three patients for ebola during the 2014 outbreak.
HHS recently sent a letter to all U.S. citizens who had been aboard the Diamond Princess that they may not reenter the United States within 14 days of disembarking the ship. More than 100 U.S. citizens who have not disembarked the ship now must wait two weeks without having symptoms before they can board a flight back to the United States.
Sacred Heart is the designated special pathogens unit for the Pacific Northwest. This is the first time the unit has been operational, although training and testing have been ongoing since 2015. The unit is housed in a separate building from the main hospital.
“Our special pathogens unit is in an area separate from our main facility where we house most of our other patients,” said Peg Currie, chief executive at Sacred Heart. “Patients in our facilities now can feel safe. We are operating normally; we are accepting patients; any procedures scheduled are going forward as planned.”
A team of nurses and respiratory therapists, who volunteered to be a part of the special pathogens team and have trained together on a quarterly basis, will treat the coronavirus patients. The 35-person team is well-prepared, the unit’s manager, Christa Arguinchona, said at a news conference Thursday.
“We have trained and exercised regularly for the last four years, in our unit and towards our scenario, as it played out earlier today with the transport, so these practices are things we do all the time,” Arguinchona said.
The special pathogens unit has 10 beds, but Arguinchona said a risk assessment based on patients’ conditions would determine how many more patients can be taken. The unit has its own lab, so any tests deemed necessary for coronavirus patients do not have to be moved throughout the hospital.
But only the CDC can perform the test to diagnose the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, leading to lag times of up to a week.
Each member of the special pathogens team wears CDC-approved protective gear, including an impermeable gown, gloves, a filtration mask and a face shield. Staff also may wear an air-purifying respirator.
Health officials still are learning how COVID-19 is transmitted, but other coronaviruses are known to spread through close personal contact or airborne droplets – coughing or sneezing. People may also contract the illness if they touch a surface infected with COVID-19 and then touch their mouths, noses or eyes.
More than 2,000 people have died from the virus, most of them in China. The virus has not killed anyone in the United States.
But panic and overreaction to the new coronavirus are no surprise to Kari Nixon, an assistant professor at Whitworth University who researches medical humanities and contagious diseases.
“It demonstrates that cognitive dissonance because, when a disease is super present here, we pretend that it isn’t,” Nixon said. “The common denominator we see is that we think disease doesn’t affect us here if it’s an outbreak or pandemic; we don’t think it’s going to happen here.”
Local health officials said no one should worry about contracting the coronavirus from the patients brought to Spokane.
“The risk to the general community about this particular process is zero,” Lutz said. “I mean, because of the resources that have been brought to bear to ensure the individuals are brought from the airport to this facility, there is no risk to the general population.”