Health officials must act faster a to combat potential epidemics like coronavirus

February 11, 2020 — by Anjali Nuggehalli and Kavita Sundaram

As the novel coronavirus has spread in the past month, it has become clear that local health officials need to do a better job preparing for such a situation in the future. The recent actions taken by officials in the Santa Clara County Public Health Department have seemed both reactionary and slow.

So far we have been lucky to avoid an outbreak. The next time we may not be.

On Feb. 3, the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the Santa Clara County Public Health Department issued a statement to all schools in the county, including Saratoga High,  calling for any staff or student who had been in the Wuhan-containing Hubei province of China within the past 14 days to not attend school for the next 14 days. While this was a mandatory quarantine, they also called for a voluntary quarantine by those who had visited any other part of China within the past 14 days. 

However, these quarantines were implemented weeks too late, considering all the students who were quarantined had already attended school for a number of days. Given that a preeminent danger behind the virus is the 14-day incubation period — during which the infected are already highly contagious despite a lack of symptoms — action against the virus should have been immediate.

With a virus as contagious and fatal as the novel coronavirus, timely and immediate action is crucial in assisting the prevention of the virus. But timeliness is exactly what the county’s actions lacked.

But beyond being just late, the current mandatory quarantine failed to actually accomplish its intended goal of protecting the school. The quarantine only accounts for a minority of potential carriers: The number of students who have visited China recently is dwarfed by the number of students whose immediate family members have recently visited China.

This latter group, all of whom could have potentially been exposed to the virus by a family member, is accounted for in the statement by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. The department called for the quarantining of any student with family members who had visited China in 2020, and barring them from coming to school. 

This is the part of the quarantine that is especially difficult to actively enforce. As difficult as it is to keep track of students who may have visited the Hubei province in China, it is much more difficult to monitor students with family members who have visited the Hubei province and could likely be contagious carriers of the virus. Despite the difficulties, health workers should go into communities and track down potential carriers.

Many countries have taken swift action to stop the virus. Singapore has prepared to cancel any mass gatherings, as well as to suspend school. Japan has barred entry for anyone who has visited the Hubei province. Along with these important actions, many airlines have suspended all flights to China. 

With the gravity of the epidemic, it is the responsibility of the local public health department to follow the lead of the global community and help prevent the virus from spreading. This includes not only screening and quarantining any potential student or staff member who might have the virus, but even more drastic actions necessary to prevent any further spread.

If the safe thing to do is to prevent students and teachers who have been in contact with someone with coronavirus from coming to school, that should be done. If it gets to the point where school needs to be canceled for days or weeks, that should happen, too. The safety of students, teachers and administrators should be the utmost priority. 

 Since 2009, there have been five Global Health Emergencies ranging from Ebola to polio. Now, coronavirus joins the list, as it is rapidly spreading, highly contagious and extremely dangerous.

While the virus has already impacted the entire world, every effort to put a halt to the proliferation of the virus is crucial. This won’t be the last time such protocols will be needed as pandemics become more common. It is important that the actions of all health officials are swift and effective.