FILE - This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

This week the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus, which is known as COVID-19, has captured the attention of millions of Americans. Ohio and Kentucky closed all public schools, travel from continental Europe to the U.S. was restricted, and athletic events - including the remainder of the NBA season and the NCAA basketball tournament - were canceled. The virus’ presence has been confirmed in Iowa, although there have been no positive tests in Hardin County.

There have been many questions about COVID-19 and the decisions to cancel events, close businesses and take other steps to curb in-person gatherings. In response, we asked readers to submit their questions about COVID-19 in Hardin County to us, and we set out to answer them. Below are answers to those questions.

For more information about how schools, churches, businesses, health care providers and nursing homes are responding to the virus, find a full local report here.

If you have a question that has not been answered, or you have information that you’d like to share with the news staff at the Times Citizen, fill out this form, email, or call the newsroom at 641-648-2521.

Q: Is COVID-19 a big concern for Hardin County right now? Is canceling functions, classes or community events really necessary?

A: While there have been no confirmed positive COVID-19 tests in Hardin County as of Thursday, the virus is in Iowa. According to the latest information from the Iowa Department of Public Health, there are 16 cases of the virus - 14 in Johnson County, and one each in Pottawattamie and Carroll counties. Public health officials said it’s right to take precautions to prevent spread of the virus.

“I definitely think people should be concerned,” said Rocky Reents, the public health coordinator at Greenbelt Home Care/Hardin County Public Health in Eldora. “It is in Iowa now so I think that was a huge realization for us. As of right now there’s no known cases in Hardin County but that’s not to say that couldn’t change by the minute. And with it being peak travel season with spring break, there’s a good part of the population right now that's not even in Iowa that will be back next week.”

Q: Will schools cancel classes? And if they do, will that affect graduation?

A: While a number of athletic events have been canceled, as of Thursday, there had been no announced school cancellations in Hardin County because of COVID-19. Des Moines Public Schools announced they will close for 17 days, but superintendents in Hardin County said they’re still monitoring the situation.

Tony Neumann, superintendent of the Iowa Falls and Alden school districts, said child care could become a major issue for parents of young children if area schools are closed. Eldora-New Providence and Hubbard-Radcliffe Superintendent Dr. Adam Zellmer said he’s taking into account the fact that some students can only rely on being able to eat meals at school. Lack of home internet access could also be a problem if districts try to move classes online.

The Iowa Valley Community College District has not moved to change the format of classes at any of its campuses, which includes Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Marshalltown Community College and Iowa Valley in Grinnell.

Since there have been no cancellations, district leaders said they can’t predict what will or will not be canceled - including class trips and graduation ceremonies. 

Q: How will this affect the elderly and how can we protect our nursing homes and medical facilities?

A: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, early information out of China - where COVID-19 first started - shows that some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness. This includes older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.

Greenbelt Home Care’s Rachel Loyd, a public health nurse, said social distancing - staying several feet from other people, avoiding gatherings of large groups of people - can protect you and the people around you, including elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

“Even if there are no active cases currently, that’s not to say somebody doesn’t have it and isn’t aware,” Loyd said. “I’m all for social distancing at this point because it’s going to reduce the spread greatly. I would hate to think I just had a cold, but then take it home to children or Grandma.”

Nursing homes in Hardin County are taking precautions to protect their residents from the virus. Some have limited trips outside the building, and visitor access is being restricted. At Scenic Living Communities in Iowa Falls, guests are being screened to check for illness. Eldora Specialty Care and Valley View Specialty Care, both in Eldora, are restricting visitors to staff, health care providers and immediate family members.

Hansen Family Hospital is asking patients who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to call ahead before arriving. That will allow health care professionals to prepare to escort the patient directly to an exam room so they'll avoid contact with most people in the hospital.

Q: Will this virus always be part of our lives now?

A: “We hope not,” said Rachel Loyd, a public health nurse with Greenbelt Home Care. “But we don't know with it being a new strain that seems to be more intense. We are thinking or hoping that it’s like Ebola or H1N1 - that it will take its course and resolve itself.”

Coronavirus is not a new illness, but the strain of novel (new) coronavirus that’s making people sick has not been seen before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the new strain was first detected in China and has now been detected in more than 100 locations internationally, including in the United States. The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”).

Q: Is Hansen Family Hospital prepared to test for the virus now?

A: Hansen Family Hospital in Iowa Falls has COVID-19 test kits ready to be used. However, cautioned Chief Nursing Officer Lori Krenos, that doesn’t mean everyone who is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms will be tested.

If a patient shows COVID-19 symptoms - upper respiratory infection, fever, cough, shortness of breath – the physician will ask the patient a series of questions. The physician will then contact the Iowa Department Public Health and that agency will decide whether or not the test can be administered. If it can, a swab is taken, and the test is sent to IDPH. Results of the test will be delivered back to the patient’s physician to be reported to the patient.

Jill Schafer, Hansen Family Hospital RN and infectious controls specialist, said the questions asked of the patient focus on travel - whether they’ve recently been to China, South Korea, Italy or Iran.

As of Thursday, officials at Greenbelt Home Care in Eldora and Hansen Family Hospital said they were not aware of any COVID-19 tests having been administered in Hardin County.

Q: What should I do to prepare and protect myself?

A: First of all, with some exceptions, it's not necessary for most to hoard toilet paper (or other supplies). Some supplies have been hot commodities in Hardin County this week, with some stores running low, or temporarily running out, of things like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. Greenbelt Home Care, whose employees need hand sanitizer for when they go into clients' homes, couldn't find it anywhere - either locally or through a distributor.

"We’ve been shopping local and you cannot find one bottle of hand sanitizer in Eldora," said public health nurse Rachel Loyd. 

So they did the next best thing. They made it. About two and a half gallons.

"It wasn’t difficult. Aloe gel, isopropyl alcohol, tea tree oil – those three," said Loyd.

Hansen Family Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Lori Krenos said hand soap is still the best option for most people.

"Soap, very warm water and wash for at least 20 seconds," said Krenos. "The second-best option is hand sanitizer."

Aside from diligent hand washing, the public is also advised to cover coughs and sneezes with the inside of their elbow and practice social distancing - don't hug, kiss or shake hands, and if you're not feeling well, stay home.

Q: Will we know if there’s a positive test in Hardin County?

A: The Iowa Department of Public Health and the Iowa Governor’s Office have been issuing press releases and hosting press conferences to announce when more COVID-19 tests have come back positive. The information released is not identifying. The state has been releasing the county of residence of the patients, and age ranges.

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