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Don’t buy masks. Do wash hands. Monroe County urges caution in coronavirus preparation

Dr. Michael Mendoza is the Monroe County Health Commissioner.
Max Schulte
WXXI News file photo
Dr. Michael Mendoza is the Monroe County Health Commissioner.

Monroe County officials said that although federal authorities have stepped up warnings for Americans to prepare for the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States, few extra precautions are necessary locally -- at least for now.

County public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza said at a news conference Thursday that people should not rush out to buy face masks. Mendoza said masks are to prevent spreading disease, not to protect against getting sick.

“People who are well are not contagious. They have nothing to spread,” Mendoza said.

He said one preparatory step that will be helpful for the public is to practice washing hands. Mendoza said he knows it sounds like a flimsy defense, but it’s an effective way to mitigate the spread of a wide array of germs.

“I know I say it often, but it is probably the most important step that we can take,” Mendoza said. “Wash your hands, especially before meals, after coughing or sneezing or when you’re about to touch your nose, mouth or eyes.”

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There are still no confirmed coronavirus cases in Monroe County or anywhere else in New York state. The county health department said earlier this week that more than a dozen people who traveled to areas deemed risky by federal authorities had emerged from quarantine with no symptoms of the virus.

Still, local hospital leaders said they were preparing for the arrival and spread of the virus. Paul Graman, who is in charge of infection control at Strong Memorial Hospital and Golisano Children's Hospital, said the plans mirror what was developed for SARS and Ebola.

“This is not the first time we’ve been through this kind of preparation,” Graman said.

But if the virus arrived today, he said, resources would be stretched thin. “The hospitals at this very moment are more than completely full, in large part due to influenza.”

Mendoza said the flu remains a bigger health threat than coronavirus because it is already prevalent in the county. Another person died of the flu recently, he said, bringing the total death toll this season to six.

For people who are concerned that their flu-like symptoms could be a sign of coronavirus infection, Mendoza and hospital leaders urged them to call either their health care provider or the county health department before heading to the hospital.

“That’s not the kind of thing we want people wondering about at home. We would much rather they call us and have a trained professional sort of triage that for them,” Mendoza said.

The New York state health department has set up a public hotline for information about the coronavirus and concerns about out-of-state travel at 888-364-3065.

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said local information would soon be available on the county’s website.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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