HACKENSACK, N.J. — Since news of the coronavirus spread across national headlines this past December, it’s common to find people walking public streets with face masks on as a precaution to protect themselves from the potentially deadly disease. 

On Sunday, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer convened with health officials from Hackensack University Medical Center, New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus, Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and Atlantic Health at the David and Alice Jurist Institute for Research at HackensackUMC to discuss preparedness, response, and coordination across the Fifth-District which comprises 79 North Jersey municipalities in four counties including Bergen, Passaic, Sussex and Warren.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey’s Fifth District will be voting on a measure posed by Gottheimer to urge Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to request emergency supplemental appropriations from Congress to fight the virus and prevent the spread of it in the United States. 

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“We’re going to be voting this week on an emergency supplemental from Congress to make sure our country has all the supplies it needs,” said Gottheimer following the March 1 meeting with local health officials. “I am so grateful for the response today from all of our doctors and nurses, clinicians, and executives who are going to be working closely together to ensure that we are prepared for this. That the beds are there. That the supplies are there…” 

To date, more than 90 people across the country have been infected with the coronavirus and at least five people have died from it — all from Washington state, CNN reports.

Coronaviruses, or COVID-19, are part of a family of viruses which cause colds and other upper respiratory infections. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death.  

During a press conference following Sunday morning’s meeting, local health officials discussed what the public should do to protect themselves from possible exposure. 

“We know that 80 percent of the cases are mild, and most people can recover at home,” said Jerry Zuckerman, M.D. and vice president of Infection Prevention and Control at Hackensack Meridian Health. “At the end of the day, the best protection is hand hygiene, so wash your hands often. It’s simple but it works, without touching your hands to your face.”

The WHO also encourages people to cover their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. People are also advised to avoid close contact (within 6 feet) of a sick person who is exhibiting signs of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing. 

The coronavirus, like other respiratory illnesses such as the common cold and the flu, can pass from respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes on or near another, specifically, landing in the mouths or noses of the healthy person, which can be inhaled into the lungs.   

It can also spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects, so people are advised to wash their hands with antibacterial soup or hand sanitizer and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth.  

If a person thinks they have the coronavirus, symptoms can appear two to 14 days after possible exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic. There currently is no vaccine against the coronavirus.

Considering the current spread of the coronavirus around the world, Zuckerman said that a “larger number of people“ will be infected by the virus, and protection against it is key.

“It’s going to be possibly a larger number of people infected,” he said. “In the past, the infections that we’ve had have been much more limited. Today, we’re all susceptible to the coronavirus even though it acts and seems like influenza. And we get that every year.”

Dr. David Perlin, the founding Chief Scientific Officer and Senior Vice President for the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation, said the hospital has developed a molecular, in-house test in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, that they plan to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization. 

“We’re hoping to have it ready to go for our network within the week,” said Perlin. “Currently, the health department labs in New Jersey are authorized to test, and so this is certainly a plus. That way, we can send samples to the health department and the CDC for final validation.” 

During the press conference, health officials said one person was recently tested for the coronavirus within the hospital network, but would not disclose any information on the patient’s gender or residence per the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Health officials say people who are mildly ill should skip a trip to the Emergency Department (which is more reserved for people who are very sick) and instead call the New Jersey Department of Health Hotline at 1-800-222-1222 with any concerns or questions. Physicians say with the change in testing availability, they’ll have a faster response to reassure the very sick patients and hopefully send them home. 

Perlin says people diagnosed with the coronavirus who have weakened immune systems are at an increased risk for succumbing to the disease, but that it doesn’t necessarily spell death for the majority of those afflicted.  

“Right know, 80 percent of people, plus or minus, developed a relatively mild disease,” he said. “Fifteen percent developed a more serious disease and 5 percent developed a very serious, acute disease — those are the ones at high risk.”

Perlin said the patients in the 5 percent category have a number of underlying conditions, including being immune suppressed, having other types of lung diseases, and having a range of disorders which “put them at a much higher risk for progression from active disease to life-threatening.” 

In the majority of cases of people with the virus, Perlin estimates recovery time to take anywhere from 2-3 weeks until they’re able to “resume their normal lives.”

The CDC is advising people to avoid traveling to China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand where the virus is more widespread. As for here in the U.S.? 
“We have no indication for widespread community transmission, so right now we’re fine,” says Perlin. “But this is a fluid situation and we monitor it day by day.”