MANKATO — The continued spread of a novel coronavirus has area hospitals, clinics, schools and public health departments preparing for potential cases in southern Minnesota.

Known as COVID-19, the disease has caused 84,124 confirmed cases and 2,867 deaths worldwide as of Friday. Minnesota hasn’t had any confirmed cases yet, but state health officials on Thursday indicated COVID-19 is likely to hit the state.

Mankato-area health officials say they’re on alert for COVID-19, while holding regular discussions on preparedness.

“What you’re seeing across the country is people looking at their preparedness plans,” said Eric Weller, coordinator of the South Central Healthcare Coalition. “This preparation is nothing new; it’s something we’ve been doing for years whether it’s an epidemic, pandemic or a surge of patients after a trauma situation.”

The coalition includes hospitals, clinics, public health agencies and emergency management organizations in south-central Minnesota. The parties are in frequent contact about the outbreak, including how to plan for potential patient surges.

Health workers at clinics and hospitals started asking patients about travel as a way to identify potential cases, Weller said. Until last week confirmed cases in the U.S. had all stemmed from people traveling from China, but cases with no obvious connection to China began to emerge on the West Coast late in the week.

Statements from Mayo Clinic Health System and Mankato Clinic confirmed they have plans and protocols in place for patient care and staff protection.

“Mayo Clinic is one of many health care organizations that is prepared, with support from public health authorities, to care for patients with COVID-19,” Mayo’s statement read. “Within our service areas, we have plans for patient care and protecting staff.”

Mankato Clinic stated it has adopted national and state guidelines for handling patients.

“At all Mankato Clinic locations, staff are following coronavirus and infection control protocol from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health,” the statement said.

The health department would oversee the handling of cases within the state, including whether quarantining is necessary. The state would notify counties if a case were identified in the area, said Kelley Haeder, Blue Earth County’s public health supervisor.

“We would provide support and make sure that person or persons had all of the essential tools,” she said.

The health department has sent four suspected COVID-19 samples to CDC since the beginning of the year. Three came back negative, and a fourth sent out Monday hasn’t been confirmed positive or negative yet.

The person it came from remains in voluntary isolation in the meantime, according to the health department. Minnesota isn’t among the states able to test for COVID-19, although the state should have the capability by next week.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at a news conference Thursday the continued spread could lead to cases in Minnesota within the next couple of weeks.

“While it would be great to keep the virus outside of Minnesota entirely, we don’t think it’s likely as a practical matter,” she said.

The state is at a point where people should find ways to minimize their risk to reduce burdens on health care providers, she said. With a vaccine still in its early stages of development, covering coughs, washing hands and staying home when sick are especially important prevention tips for the public.

Just as local and state health officials prepare for a state outbreak, Mankato Area Public Schools and other districts are in frequent contact with the health department’s school nurses consultant and regional epidemiologist. Mankato schools nurse Terri Helland said the district is updating its pandemic plan from the H1N1 flu in 2009 as needed to respond to the new threat.

“We’re taking phone calls from parents or students if they have questions or concerns,” she said. “We’re just trying to let them know what we know so far, and we’re following the lead of our health experts.”

COVID-19 symptoms include a fever, tiredness and dry cough. Its fatality rate is roughly 2.3%, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The fatality rate rises by age, with an 8% rate for people between 70 and 79 and a nearly 15% rate for people older than 80. No one younger than 9 years old has died from the disease yet, a sign younger people aren’t as vulnerable to the virus so far. About 87% of cases occurred in people between 30 and 79 years old.

Like other respiratory diseases, COVID-19 is believed to spread through exposure to droplets from an infected person’s coughs and sneezes. With how new the disease is, though, state health officials stressed there’s still much to learn about it and how it spreads.

The COVID-19 outbreak comes as flu cases spiked in recent weeks in Minnesota. Flu deaths rose to 67 across Minnesota and reached at least 16,000 in the U.S. as of late February.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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