The image of the five red letters tweeted by the Harris County Public Health Department in Texas reassured county residents that a disinformation site claiming four individuals in the county had the 2019 novel coronavirus was wrong.
Coast to coast, counties and local health departments are responding to the spread of the coronavirus, but their response goes beyond testing patients for the virus.
“There are always two different kinds of emergencies that come up,” said Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health Department. “One is the actual emergency and the second is all the misinformation and all the impact of the anxiety because of the misinformation.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describe the novel coronavirus as a respiratory illness that was first detected in Wuhan, China. It is currently unclear how easily the virus spreads between people. Similar to the flu or common cold, symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
As of the publication of this story, 15 people in the United States tested positive for coronavirus, according to the CDC, with cases confirmed in Washington, California, Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas.
Harris County, the third largest county in the United States, has no confirmed cases of coronavirus, but the potential for an infectious disease has raised anxiety and concerns for those in the community, Shah said.
“Whenever you have concerns, then that is what makes people susceptible to rumors and misinformation,” he said. “Where it’s either inadvertently or purposefully, there are unfortunately people out there that will spread information that is just simply inaccurate.”
Through traditional media and social media, Harris County is responding to myths about the virus by providing daily updates and fact sheets in multiple languages to the community. The Harris County Public Health Department launched a website in January with information and links to the CDC and the World Health Organization.
To help combat the spread of misinformation, Shah said county officials are launching a rumor control webpage that debunks rumors circulating around the county.
“This is where county leadership, emergency management and public health are coming together to really ensure that misinformation is not spread in our community,” he said.
In Harris County, Shah said the Asian American and Chinese-American communities have seen the spread of misinformation surrounding the coronavirus including decreased business for grocery stores and restaurants in Chinatown.
“People are getting misinformation and saying, ‘Oh, I’m not going to go eat in a Chinese restaurant,’” he said. “That’s a problem and we really need to do everything we can to address that.”
A resident in Snohomish County, Wash., was the first confirmed case of the 2019 novel coronavirus in the United States.
The state Department of Health and Snohomish Health District worked with the CDC to establish a travel history of the patient and identify contacts who may have been exposed to the virus through contact with the individual.
The Snohomish County resident traveled from Wuhan City, China to an airport in neighboring King County, according to Meredith Li-Vollmer, risk communication specialist for Public Health Seattle and King County. The individual also worked in King County.
Similar to Harris County, King County officials are working to keep county residents informed with new information translated into different languages.
The county uses its website and also has a blog that features question-and-answer articles with the county health officer.
With a large Asian and Asian American community in King County, Li-Vollmer said county officials created materials emphasizing that viruses do not discriminate and that race, ethnicity and nationality are not a risk to contracting the virus.
“We know that those communities have some very specific concerns and that they have been subject to discrimination and harassment related to coronavirus, so we’ve... made sure they had their questions answered by our health officer and our health director,” she said.
According to a statement from the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), local health departments are working to protect the public’s health by communicating with transportation officials, educating healthcare providers and communicating with the public about best practices to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.
“Local health departments are working with their federal and state counterparts, along with healthcare partners, to ensure that our communities are doing all they can to prevent domestic transmission and prepare for possible cases in their communities,” said E. Oscar Alleyne, NACCHO’s chief of Programs and Services, in a statement.
More than 60,000 people were infected with the virus worldwide as of last week, the CDC reported.
There have been more than 1,000 deaths reported in China, as of last week.
While there is currently no vaccine to prevent the 2019 Novel Coronavirus infection, the CDC reported a World Health Organization team is traveling to China to study the virus.