Situated in the heartland and, apparently for now, at a safe distance from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19, Evanston, in conjunction with state and federal departments and its own Department of Health & Human Services, is getting its agencies and residents prepared.

The first communication about coronavirus went out from Evanston/Skokie School District 65 to parents/guardians and District personnel on Feb.11. The tone was reassuring; the focus, narrow. The letter stated the goals of federal and state authorities:  quick identification of new cases and prevention of the spread of the virus.

Schools

District 65

The letter explained that “The health risk of 2019-nCoV to the general public remains low in both the U.S. and Illinois, and most families do not need to change their normal activities.”

But the District targeted one specific group for concern – those who had recently traveled to China, the origin and epicenter of the disease. Taking its cue from Illinois Department of Health recommendations and from federal guidelines the District specifically addressed those who had traveled to China before Feb. 3, 2020, and who had developed respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing.  Such travelers, the District advised, should seek medical help but also should call ahead for advice on how to prevent exposing others.

Ike Ogbo of the Evanston Department of Health and Human Services and Mary Larson, Coordinator of Dist,65 Health Services Dept., signed off by suggesting that the most reliable information is available at the Center for Disease Control website www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov and the Illinois Department of Public Health hotline (1-800-889-3931) and the State site dph.sick@llinois.gov are available to answer questions.

Evanston Township High School

While most other agencies waited to issue warnings or advice, Evanston Township High School sent a letter to students and families on Feb. 27. Referring to the virus by its new name – COVID-19 – Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, along with the ETHS Nurse’s Office and Evanston Department of Health and Human Services listed the everyday practices that can help avoid any respiratory virus:

  • Cover a cough or sneeze.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Use hand sanitizer if soap is not available.
  • Keep fingers away from eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Do not share water bottles or similar containers.
  • Visit a doctor with a fever, cough, body aches and fatigue.
  • Stay home and avoid contact with others when you or a family member is sick.

ETHS intends to take reasonable steps, including routine cleaning, to keep the school functioning, the letter said.

Northwestern University

Northwestern University reports it is very closely monitoring the outbreak of COVID-19 and providing regular updates to the University community. Northwestern has restricted travel to South Korea and China, as it always restricts undergraduate travel to counties deemed high-risk by the State Department.

Northwestern Now reported on Feb. 27, “At this time, most university-sponsored Spring Break travel to Asia, including Cambodia, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam remains on schedule, but options are being explored in the case changes would be considered prudent. No spring break programs are scheduled for Italy or South Korea.”

Hospitals

At AMITA Saint Francis Hospital, said Timothy Nelson, “Our infection control and prevention physicians and clinicians are working hard to educate themselves and staff on COVID-19 and its possible transmission. We continue to follow CDC and IDPH guidelines in screening our patients regarding travel and symptoms, isolating as appropriate.” Mr. Nelson, System Director, Communications and Media Relations, responded by email to questions from the RoundTable.

“Associates and physicians are educated on the screening and proper use of personal protective equipment. Patient requesting information are directed to the websites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health, which are the overall experts on the condition,” Mr. Nelson said.

He also said AMITA Health, a 19-hospital system owned by Ascension and Advent Health, has resources available local and nationally and is “well positioned to care for our patients in the event of a larger health emergency.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health performs all testing and diagnostic for COVID-19, Mr. Nelson said. Previously, the Centers for Disease Control performed conducted these activities.

A spokesperson for NorthShore University HealthSystem said there was no infectious disease specialist immediately on hand to answer the RoundTable’s questions but the organization would provide answers at a later date.

The City of Evanston

On Feb. 28, the City’s Health & Human Services Department notified the public it is working with “the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and local, state and federal health partners to take all preventive steps necessary to prepare for and limit the potential spread of the coronavirus.

The City’s statement said although there is “low risk to Evanston residents, since COVID-19 does not appear to be spreading “in communities in Illinois,” Evanston Health & Human Services Department is working to make sure Evanston is prepared.

“While the current risk to Evanston residents is low, the Health & Human Services Department is taking all necessary steps to ensure we’re ready to respond to and mitigate the potential spread of this infectious disease,” said City of Evanston Health & Human Services Director Ike Ogbo. “We will continue to work closely with our local, state and federal health partners to identify all available resources to keep our community safe.”

The Department has assembled an internal response team dedicated to COVID-19 planning. Based on the development of the coronavirus in the U.S., that team will be expanded to a task force to include external community partners to better coordinate the City’s efforts. Ongoing preparedness activities include:

Closely monitoring and maintaining situational awareness about this new disease through IDPH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to better prepare for mitigation and response activities.

Assessing and monitoring persons who may be at higher risk of infection.  

Working with local hospitals to ensure coordination of proper infection control measures and testing, if needed. 

Determining whether individuals fit the definition of a Person Under Investigation (PUI) subject to further evaluation or testing.

Sharing situational updates, preparedness planning and mitigation strategies with City staff and community partners.

Responding to inquiries from residents, schools and other organizations, and providing them with guidance and education, as needed.

The City offers similar precautions for residents to stay healthy and limit the potential spread of COVID-19: Stay home when sick; cover coughs and sneezes; wash hands frequently; and routinely clean frequently touched surfaces and objects

In addition, residents who are sick and have also either recently traveled to a country with sustained community spread of COVID-19 or had close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 should contact their healthcare provider.

At the State Level

The Illinois Department of Public Health issued a statement of Feb. 26 that it is working with local, state and federal health partners “to

take all preventative steps available to limit the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). … IDPH is currently conducting hospital assessments to determine all available capacity in the event more people need medical care. IDPH is also assessing the availability of personal protective equipment such as gloves, gowns, and masks for health care workers. Earlier this month, Illinois became the first state to provide COVID-19 testing in-state and IDPH is continuing to work on increasing capacity for testing to ensure rapid results.


“As additional cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed in an increasing number of countries, the Illinois Department of Public Health is working with health care providers and local public health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other state agencies to coordinate a robust response and take every possible step we can to prepare,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. “Illinois has already led the charge, becoming the first state to be able to test for COVID-19 at state laboratories. As we move forward, we are working across city, state, and federal agencies to identify all available resources and ensure we are using every tool to keep our communities safe.”

Additional Information

More information about COVID-19 is available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html. Additional information about how to prepare for the spread of the virus and steps to stay healthy are available at cdc.gov/nonpharmaceutical-interventions/

The IDPH also recently launched a hotline for COVID-19 questions. Community members may dial 1-800-889-3931 or email dph.sick@illinois.gov.

Information on COVID-19 is also available on the City’s website, at cityofevanston.org/covid19.