What happens in China doesn't stay in China. What started as a small blip in the world news cycle, coronavirus, or Covid-19, an infectious flu-like illness, now dominates the news cycle and has spread to the U.S.

On Wednesday, March 4 the Wallowa County Health District is hosting an informative community town hall, aptly titled Prepare, Don't Panic".  The event will be at Cloverleaf Hall, 6-7 p.m. and features Dr. Elizabeth Powers and other providers who can answer questions and provide updates on preparations.  

Wallowa County is far removed from mainland China, but those who thought its relative isolation might offer some protection should think again. Oregon recently picked up its first cases, which now total three. On Monday the Wildhorse Casino just east of Pendleton shuttered its doors temporarily because an employee reportedly was diagnosed with the disease.  On March 2, Oregon's state health officer announced it's possible that 300-500 Oregon residents are unknowingly carrying the virus.

At this time there are no know or suspected cases in Wallowa County, said  Emergency Services Director Paul Karvoski. But even though Wallowa County is isolated and has no hint of Covid-19 doesn't mean that local health care professionals as well as schools and care facilities aren't already making preparations in the event of a local outbreak of the virus. 

Dr. Elizabeth Powers, co-founder of Winding Waters, a local non-profit community health center based in Enterprise, said that local health officials are already planning a response. To that end, she has already prepared and sent out an information handout regarding the virus to be passed around local schools and the general public.

"I would say that local primary care clinics as well as the hospital are definitely prepared and taking steps to make sure that the staff and community stay well protected," she said. "The biggest message to people is: Do what your mom and dad taught you and wash your hands up to the elbow, avoid public places when you're sick and practice good hygiene."

Powers added that if people have questions about symptoms that they or a loved one is having or harbor fears about their health condition and risk for Coronavirus infection, they should contact their primary care provider. Covid-19 is primarily a respiratory disease. Coughs and difficulty breathing, along with a fever, are among its first symptoms.

Both the hospital and Winding Waters clinic want to encourage people to call first and ask questions and the entities will share information if deemed medically appropriate. If health care providers think the caller needs medical evaluation, they will advise the caller to come in for a curbside visit at Winding Waters or possibly the hospital emergency room.

"Our goal is to keep people with a fever and a cough out of health care facilities," she said. "Obviously, if people are ill and need to be in the hospital, then we have  appropriate safe rooms in which to care for them, and we have protocols in place for them."

Powers also said that what's most important is that people need to take care of themselves. For example, making sure those with chronic conditions, such as asthma, keep them under control. She also suggested stopping smoking and getting all recommended vaccines.  Powers then advised people to maintain calm.

"We've had lots of Coronaviruses, which are  really related to flu, including Avian flu and SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) and all these other infectious scares, and what we know is that if people practice good basic precautions, risks are pretty low," she said. "Most healthy people who get exposed to these illnesses fight them off with no problems. Our basic message is: 'Be prepared; don't panic."

Preparations and planning in Wallowa County Schools

The Wallowa, Enterprise, and Joseph Charter school districts are making careful and well-thought-out plans to prevent and also possibly deal with any eventual Covid-19 cases that might appear in their students. "The three superintendents met on Monday to make a plan," said Enterprise superintendent Erika Pinkerton. Schools are working with the Wallowa Health Care District and Winding Waters Clinic to insure that preventative information, and information about how to recognize possible symptoms are sent to parents, and that  students follow guidelines that include frequently washing hands, not touching their faces, and using disposable tissues if they have to sneeze or cough.  

"We are getting regular updates and guidance from the Department of Education," said Wallowa superintendent Jay Hummel in a letter to parents. "All of the schools are consulting with Winding Waters clinic who provide contracted county health services."

Joseph Charter School is in a “monitoring” stage, according to district Superintendent Lance Homan, who said there is “nothing alarming” to report.

“We’re just monitoring and listening to the Oregon Department of Education and the local health professionals,” he said. “We’ll be ready if we need to do anything.”

He said at present, teachers and students are being reminded to wash their hands thoroughly and if they’re sick, stay home. 

Homan said that on Monday, March 2, he and the superintendents of other school districts in the county met to ensure they had lines of communication open. He said that if any superintendent’s district found a suspected case of the virus, the other districts would be notified.

“We’re just following the protocols the health department has given,” Homan said.

Coronavirus and the market

Concern about the spread of the virus has not only created some public health panic, but has ventured far from the realm of that concern to the point where it has affected world trade and consequently, the stock market, which is just now undulating back and forth between losses and gains after a week of serious losses largely due to fears about the virus. Local financial adviser, Ken Hauxwell, of Wallowa World Strategies said that as of Friday, Feb. 28, he'd had only one call about the virus and the stock market. He has had people come in and buy stock, however. His advice to those questioning their investments?

"Just hang on," he said. He added that it seemed to him that most of the market fluctuation is the product of hedge fund managers rather than individual buying and selling. He said he recommended that the majority of his clients stay the course.

"Selling everything off and getting completely out of the market -- that's the wrong thing to do. I think this will probably blow over in the next few weeks, and we'll see a turnaround."

Bill Bradshaw and Ellen Morris Bishop contributed to this story.

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