Guest column by State Health Commissioner Kristina Box, M.D., FACOG
The first cases of novel coronavirus COVID-19 were reported in China on New Year’s Eve, and within days, the top leaders, epidemiologists, and emergency preparedness experts at the Indiana State Department of Health were reviewing our response plans and seeing how, using the limited information available on the virus, we could make Indiana as prepared as possible if the outbreak would spread.
Every day since ISDH has been focused on how we can arm Hoosiers with the information they need to be ready. We are educating healthcare providers and local health departments, overseeing the monitoring of residents who have traveled to an affected country, and making sure schools, businesses and agencies serving Indiana’s diverse populations know what they can do to protect themselves and prepare for possible disruptions in their daily lives.
The spread of the virus, and what we know about it, are ever-evolving, and we work to make sure that the public and healthcare providers have the most up-to-date information and guidance.
Local health departments, emergency management agencies, emergency medical services, and healthcare providers are divided into 10 emergency preparedness districts across the state. The key leaders in those districts are keenly in touch with the communities, the needs, local decision-makers and the resources available. We are constantly learning from them what unique or new needs might exist if COVID-19 spreads across Indiana. In addition, every local health department has a direct line to ask questions and get information from ISDH.
And with the support and direction of Indiana Governor Eric J. Holcomb, we’ve assembled an impressive team of healthcare representatives from across the state to help as a formal advisory group. The members have dedicated their careers to community healthcare in all corners of the state, from addressing outbreaks to managing efficient delivery of healthcare services to caring for special populations. The perspectives and insight of experienced infectious disease specialists, clinicians and emergency preparedness managers ensure that we are considering all possibilities and taking every step possible to prepare.
Additionally, we’ve created an Indiana Multi-Agency Committee, which includes nearly a dozen state agencies, that is working to refine how we would respond if COVID-19 gains a foothold in Indiana.
Pandemic plans are formed for this exact scenario that we are experiencing. While we cannot predict when, how or where COVID-19 might impact Indiana, we can say with certainty that this is what we train for, and we are taking every step to be ready. We have pre-identified strategies we can implement quickly to keep Hoosiers out of harm’s way. Those include knowing our healthcare system’s capacity to take on a large increase of patients, identifying what resources are available and what would be needed, forming communication strategies to help Hoosiers stay informed and managing their risk appropriately, and setting guidance for when we might need to screen travelers or limit public gatherings.
We are helping schools know what to expect and what to do if a student or teacher is undergoing testing and we are working with your employers to make sure they have the information they need to make decisions about how to continue operations while reducing the risk of illness. We’ve measured, then re-measured, the capacities of healthcare facilities across the state and developed plans to fill any gaps or shift resources to areas of greatest need.
We are offering training to medical providers across the state so that your local doctor should know what to do if a patient presents with symptoms of COVID-19, and your community hospital has the latest guidance to help protect patients, staff, and visitors. Long-term care facilities and the state’s prisons have also received information to help reduce the health risks to vulnerable populations. We are developing new guidance every day and sharing that with those who need it.
For now, you should follow the simple steps of washing your hands thoroughly and often, covering your cough, staying home if you’re sick, and regularly disinfecting surfaces. You can find the latest information about COVID-19 on our dedicated website at https://on.in.gov/COVID19 . You can sign up to receive an email alert whenever new information is posted.
While we want you to plan for what steps your family can take if you eventually need to stay home or help bring food or supplies to a neighbor who may need to stay home, we want you to have confidence that we are working around the clock to make sure that Indiana is taking the right steps to be ready if COVID-19 comes our way.