Emergency Room trauma nurse Ariahnna Romero and Dr. Michael Boney, medical director of the Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital Emergency Department stand in front of a new triage tent set up for any possible surge of COVID-19 patients. Credit: Barry Holtzclaw

Since San Benito County’s first two cases of the coronavirus were reported in early February, no new cases have been identified in the county.

Local health officials—public and private—aren’t taking any chances.

The county Board of Supervisors on March 10 proclaimed a “state of emergency” to prepare for any impacts associated with the coronavirus, “to better adapt and give the county the administrative ability to adapt county operations, request mutual aid if needed and ensure the allocation of more resources as it relates to COVID‐19.”

The county activated its emergency operations center to help support the county and local health partners in monitoring and preparing for any COVID‐19 outbreak and to coordinate increased public information efforts.

The approved county proclamation read, “All of us have the responsibility to become prepared and ready for any of the changes that are likely to affect our daily lives. Staying informed is critical. This is not a time to panic, but to plan for the possible disruptions to our daily lives.”

“So, be prepared, plan, stay calm, and informed,” it continued. “All residents can do their part to help reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 by using flu prevention measures such as handwashing and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects.”

At Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister, a number of measures and procedures have been put in place in response to the coronavirus.

The hospital staff on March 6 set up a large, yellow mobile inflatable Emergency Room triage tent in the ambulance bay outside of the Emergency Department.

The tent will become operational in the event of any outbreak of the virus or a “patient surge” of respiratory illness, screening symptomatic patients that meet the criteria set forth by the CDC for COVID-19.

Samples from tests of any suspected COVID-19 patient would be sent immediately to Monterey County for CDC-approved testing, the hospital said.

The separate controlled environment of the triage tent “allows us to minimize exposure to our staff and other patients in the ER while we evaluate a symptomatic patient’s condition,” said Dr. Michael Bogey, medical director of the Hazel Hawkins Emergency Department.

Bogey said his team has been working closely with the San Benito County Public Health Department and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to prepare for 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).  Hospital staff have tested their policies and procedures to receive, assess, treat and/or transfer any suspected COVID-19 patients.

Bogey said this has been an especially busy winter flu season in his ER, with patients suffering from a variety of flu and respiratory symptoms.

“While there are currently no active cases of the virus in San Benito County, the local hospital staff is ready to respond,” the hospital said in a statement.

“We are ready for any patient—we have to be prepared for anything,” said hospital spokesperson Frankie Gallagher. She said the hospital, and especially its frontline in the ER, is well equipped with personal protective equipment and treatment supplies for any highly contagious situation.

Gallagher said the hospital is maintaining its restrictions on visitors to its skilled nursing facilities, imposed earlier this year because of concerns about influenza. Visitors are restricted to over the age of 26, and must wear masks to reduce any chance of an infection.

Dr. Martin Fenstersheib, the county’s interim health officer, this month announced aggressive recommendations to reduce any chance of the spread of coronavirus. “As we know, this is an ever-changing event in our lives,” he said in a statement. “The response must now include measures that will most likely alter some of our daily routines. Our community is unique in that many residents who live here travel outside the county, especially to Santa Clara County where there have been numerous cases of novel coronavirus with evidence of community spread.”                   

Fenstersheib advocated postponing or canceling large community events and gatherings where people will be within arm’s length of one another.  

“This includes concerts, sporting events and conventions,” he said.

He urged people 60 years and older or with underlying health conditions to avoid crowds and public places, and to call a health care at the first sign of any respiratory symptoms.

He also encouraged employers to suspend any employee travel, minimize numbers of employees who work within an arm’s length of each other and explore telecommuting options.

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