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The biggest little virus: COVID-19 in Washoe County

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

Feature image: Trevor Bexon

The first report of Coronavirus in Washoe County came last week. The Washoe County Health District issued a statement that it had received a possible positive report of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) in a 50-year-old resident, and his test was sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for verification.

The patient has been sequestered to his residence and was confirmed to be associated with the Grand Princess cruise ship outbreak. Last reports indicated he was in stable condition.

On the following day, Huffaker Elementary School was shut down by the Washoe County School District after a request made by the Health District citing an “abundance of caution.” A student at the school, who has since tested negative for the virus, lives with the man who tested positive. District officials ordered a deep cleaning of the school to prevent the potential spread of the virus among students, faculty and staff. No Huffaker students have tested positive for COVID-19.

On Sunday, WCHD announced a second potential case of Coronavirus in a Washoe County resident, a male in his 30s. He said symptoms appeared after a trip to Santa Clara, Calif., and he is self-isolating at home.

Local officials’ take

Local health officials say they have been “working diligently to conduct a ‘Contact Tracing Investigation’ of those who had close contacts with this individual,” according to Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick.

Dick spoke at the health district’s March 6 press conference where he was joined by Washoe County Manager Eric Brown, who personally thanked the WCHD for their preventative measures in controlling the spread of COVID-19. He then expressed that the safety, health and well-being of Washoe County residents and employees was of the utmost importance to the county, and himself personally.

The diagnosis of the first case spurred WCHD to activate a “Level 2 Health District Emergency Response,” an escalation from the Level 1 response earlier that day. The Level Responses work to “monitor individuals and help to prepare the community with precautionary measures and planning for the potential community transmission here,” according to Dick.

The health district announced Monday it plans to start drive-though testing for the Coronavirus for certain individuals.

WCHD official Kevin Dick, right, speaks to local media March 6 about the county's response to COVID-19. He said more than once that he would not disclose "information that does not need to be distributed." Image: Trevor Bexon
WCHD official Kevin Dick, right, speaks to local media March 6 about the county’s response to COVID-19. He said more than once that he would not disclose “information that does not need to be distributed.” Image: Trevor Bexon

Washoe County School District Interim Superintendent Kristen McNeill also issued a statement that the WCSD is working with state and county departments for reactionary plans in case of an identified case of COVID-19.

Beyond those statements, WCHD remains tight-lipped about details. Responding to questions from the media, Dick tersely stated the WCHD “will not be disclosing information that does not need to be distributed.”

He also explained the WCHD is sympathetic in protecting the confidentiality of people involved and are appropriately investigating confirmed family members that attend the school. He was able to confirm there were additional family members who were on the cruise.

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The numbers

Although COVID-19 is classified as a new disease by the World Health Organization, the organization declared it a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” January 30, 2020. WHO’s latest information confirms there has been a total of 3,584 deaths globally, 3,100 of which were in China. WHO also reports 3,610 total confirmed new cases. However, this number encompasses over 100 countries and various territories.

Early research indicates the virus may be significantly more deadly than the seasonal flu, which kills roughly one in 1,000 people. An analysis of outcomes for more than 44,000 confirmed patients in China found that roughly one in 50 died. Eighty-one percent of patients infected with the new coronavirus had mild illness, 14 percent had severe illness and 5 percent had critical illness, according to the study.

The pathogen is considerably less dangerous than other coronaviruses, such as MERS, which kills about a third of people who become infected, and SARS, which kills about 1 in 10. All of the diseases appear to latch on to proteins on the surface of lung cells, but MERS and SARS seem to be more destructive to lung tissue. New York Times, February 28, 2020

Outside of China, there have been only 484 deaths attributed to the virus. The United States accounts for 539 confirmed cases in 34 states, with 22 official deaths being contributed to COVID-19.

The current U.S. population is reported by the United States Census Bureau to be 329,374,753 with a net gain of one person every 23 seconds, including one international migrant every 47 seconds


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The global population is reported to be 7.7 billion people, according to United Nations data.

The World Health Organization has also issued a statement acknowledging and warning against “instances of public stigmatization among specific populations, and the rise of harmful stereotypes.” They also report “stigmatization could potentially contribute to more severe health problems, ongoing transmission, and difficulties controlling infectious diseases during an epidemic.”

Meanwhile in Washington

Vice President Mike Pence made the following declaration last week during an official press briefing by members of the White House: “To be clear: If you are a healthy American, the risk of contracting the Coronavirus remains low.”

According to his tweets, President Donald Trump has argued that Democrats and journalists were guilty of using the virus for “political weaponization.”

Trump falsely claimed, “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” citing statistics for deaths from flu in relation to those for COVID-19. It is well publicized that a number of organizations have canceled events.

The above tweet by President Donald Trump has misleading and incorrect information.

There have been closures of numerous schools around the country, and colleges and universities have been canceling classes. Even some federal agencies are scaling back certain operations.

The source and severity

Although Wuhan, China was the initial origin for COVID-19, a New York Times report on March 9 indicated “Italy remains the epicenter of the epidemic on the continent, accounting for more than 7,350 of the world’s 109,400 cases, which are spread across at least 95 countries.”

The Times also reported that Saudi Arabia (as of Monday) “has closed off air and sea travel to nine countries in an effort to slow transmission, as the kingdom grappled with a simultaneous blow to its economy from a severe drop in oil prices because of the outbreak.”

The Times: “Global stocks plunged on Monday, with Wall Street poised to follow suit.” The Washington Post on Monday reported the Dow Jones industrial average “cratered more than 2,015 points, or roughly 7.8 percent.”

Reports from multiple news agencies including the BBC indicate that up to 16 million people have been quarantined in Italy, restricted to their provinces and requiring “special permission to travel.”

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also confirmed multiple closures of public facilities ranging from schools to nightclubs and gymnasiums.

The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement however seemed to downplay the outbreak.

On their government website, the department issued an official statement that the country is “witnessing a worrying proliferation of inaccurate and alarmist news on the health situation in our country that does not reflect the reality of a contagion phenomenon that remains significantly limited to some small areas restricted to a few regions.”

The Italian government also stated that Farnesina’s (The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) “is committed to countering the spread of misleading and imprecise messages and information.”

Reno reaction and the media

Here in Reno the reactions of citizens about the danger of COVID-19 vary. The Reno News & Review questioned five random people in this week’s issue: their concern about the virus as a potential threat had assorted responses from “probably” and “I don’t know,” to extreme concern and political downplaying.

With global financial markets plummeting, the mainstream media has become the target of criticism for more than just the President. On January 31, Reuters reported that Facebook will be removing “misinformation” about COVID-19. Facebook, which serves 2.9 billion users monthly, cites content violations for the ban, which might convey “misleading information leading to physical harm.”

You can swing it one way by hyping up the stories about Costco running out of bleach and disinfectant wipes, or you can use your outlet…to give them contact with doctors.”

The Guardian reported March 3 that British officials are facing a misinformation crisis for the first time over the COVID-19 outbreak. Public health officials in the UK are trying to provide the nation with facts about the spread of Coronavirus, but are “battling a wave of misinformation, as they wrestle with the first major British health crisis of the smartphone era.”

The Guardian also quoted Professor David Harper, a former chief scientist at the Department of Health who said, “The UK’s established communications strategy for a public health crisis is to have a trusted medical figure rather than a politician deliver regular updates to the public.”

Several social media outlets, including Facebook and Twitter, are providing users with direct links to National Health Service outlets in an attempt to promote official advice from the organization, England’s publicly funded healthcare system.

Local newscaster and University of Nevada, Reno journalism instructor Landon Miller said that, in his opinion, the mainstream media is possibly playing a part in “hyper-inflating” the panic. Miller explains that before you become a journalist you “take an oath (The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics), and one of those codes of ethics is to minimize harm. It seems like what a lot of outlets are doing is the opposite of that by giving it so much play.”

Miller pointed out that there are media outlets providing viable and accurate resources. He specifically noted a Las Vegas ABC affiliate that used their platform last week to provide professional advice on the virus to the viewers. Viewers called in and received verified expert information on the topic and asked questions directly to medical doctors and professionals.

“I think television news and mainstream news has a lot of potential to either swing this issue one way or the other: you can swing it one way by hyping up the stories about Costco running out of bleach and disinfectant wipes, or you can use your outlet, your powers, to give accessibility to people,” Miller said. “To give them contact with doctors.”

He continued: “Journalists, no matter what they do, should seek the truth and report it. And secondly, minimize harm. And as a journalist, a former news person, a journalist instructor at the University, I feel there is some, not all, but some [hyper-inflating by media outlets] that is causing a lot of fear. And that is irresponsible.”

Not business as usual

DON’T PANIC: TMCC is encouraging faculty members to “develop plans during a calm, not emergency time.”

Local businesses are also feeling the effects of media sensationalism. Jessica Montoya-Hodges, club manager and daughter of the owner of Sports West Athletic Club expressed her frustrations.

The facility, which takes extreme pride in health awareness and sanitary conditions, recently encountered an issue purchasing cleaning supplies.

“She (club owner DeeDee Desiderio) was trying to buy bleach, hand sanitizer and soap for the facility, and they told her there was a limit on how much she could buy because of the Coronavirus,” Montoya-Hodges said of a visit to Reno’s Sam’s Club.

Montoya-Hodges also noted that Sam’s Club was out of toilet paper. She explained that because their monthly purchase was limited, they now have to make multiple trips to several stores in order to procure the necessary products to meet facility requirements.

“It’s not very good because we want to make sure for our members everything is clean, which is very important to us, and for all our members here.”

End result

As COVID-19 seemingly dominates the news, social media outlets and general topics of discussions for online forums and media outlets, the actual cases of it are on the decline in China. The virus, which is suspected to have originated from a seafood market in Wuhan, China, has met aggressive measures by Chinese officials.

The WHO has confirmed the decline in a report released Feb. 28 (Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 [COVID-19]).

Regardless of the increasing and decreasing reports of COVID-19, one local resident, Michael Stewart, suggested the panic, misinformation and fear has purposely dominated recent media coverage.

Stewart, while acknowledging the virus is certainly real, observed that the timing and overwhelming media coverage is conveniently distracting from “possibly the most important presidential election in the history of this country.”

“All of a sudden nobody is talking about the fact we have a lunatic impeached President, or a bunch of equally ridiculous potential opponents running for the most important political office on the planet,” he said. “That must be nice for them.”


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