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Outbreak-Tested By Measles, Washington State Officials Feel Ready For Coronavirus


There are now three confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States. The first confirmed U.S. case was found in the Pacific Northwest - Snohomish County, north of Seattle. The man who had it had returned recently from a trip to Wuhan, China. But as Will Stone reports, the local health care system isn't panicking. In fact, they feel ready because of a recent wave of measles.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: This medical clinic in Edmonds is not far from the hospital where that first infected person ended up after traveling from Wuhan, China. So it's natural that some patients have been asking questions.

TOVE SKAFTUN: We do have patients that are calling in. And we do have patients that are talking about it with their provider staff.

STONE: Tove Skaftun is the head nurse here at the Community Health Center of Snohomish County. Skaftun is unfazed. In fact, she already had all the right protocols and infection control gear at the ready...


STONE: ...Like this air filter stashed in her clinic supply room that fits over your whole head.

SKAFTUN: You see - it's got this hood that connects to the tube. And so the provider's head is completely contained. And all of the air is filtered.

STONE: Staff at her clinics have practiced getting ready for an infectious outbreak pretty recently. Last year, there was an alarming measles outbreak in parts of Washington state, mostly among unvaccinated children. No one died. But Skaftun says it was a wake-up call for the health system.

SKAFTUN: The measles really kind of enlightened everybody about, wow, there's a lot of things out there that can be really contagious and can get you really sick really fast.

STONE: Measles is one of the most contagious diseases on Earth. In contrast, experts think this new coronavirus requires close contact to spread between humans. But they're still investigating. Skaftun says she's glad last year's measles outbreak forced them to improve.

SKAFTUN: We've recently grown our infection control program. So it's kind of at the forefront of a lot of what we do.

STONE: And it wasn't just measles that pushed health providers to get ready for an outbreak. It was also the Ebola scare back in 2014. That prompted a Snohomish hospital to prepare for high-level infectious pathogens. They set up isolation rooms with robotic devices. Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, a hospital executive, says they also have special isolation gurneys.

AMY COMPTON-PHILLIPS: So that even wheeling a person through a hallway, you keep the germs contained.

STONE: That hospital, Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, is where the man with Wuhan coronavirus was transported after returning to Seattle.

COMPTON-PHILLIPS: Infrastructure had been put in place to ensure that when something came around, we'd be ready.

STONE: But what about the people who came in close contact with the infected man before he went into that hospital? Health officials have tracked down more than 50 of them and are monitoring them in case they develop symptoms. But overall, the public health message is the risk of coronavirus spreading here remains low. Dr. Asqual Getaneh is the chief medical officer for a handful of clinics in the Seattle area that serve lots of patients from Asia and the Pacific Islands. She says some of her patients have already traveled to China for the holiday celebrations and come back. And some told her they got sick while there and were hospitalized in China.

ASQUAL GHETANI: But they've come back. And they are asymptomatic. So it's possible that it was coronavirus.

STONE: But she says it's also possible it was another type of pneumonia. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.