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Doctors: Be concerned, don’t panic

Practitioners say local lack of test for coronavirus a disadvantage

As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread in Pennsylvania, two local doctors are weighing in on what measures they are taking as they continue to monitor the disease while cautioning against hitting the panic button.

Separating patients

At Reinhardt Family Practices, which has offices in Altoona and Hollidaysburg, patients who are scheduled for “well visits,” like routine checkups, are being asked to not come into the office and instead consult with their doctor over the phone or in a video call.

“As of Wednesday, we are switching most of our non-sick patients to tele-medicine,” said Dr. John Reinhardt. “The reason for that is very straight forward.”

Reinhardt said that he thought back to the SARS epidemic and how it spread to help guide him toward the decision and the best way to protect his patients.

“With the SARS epidemic, 50 percent of the people who got SARS got it in a health care setting,” he said. “They went to their doctor, express care or the emergency room, and that’s how they got it.”

Reinhardt said it is a matter of limiting the risk to patients moving forward.

“We knew that we would continue to have sick patients come in, but it would be unconscionable to for us to continue to see well patients alongside our sick patients,” he said. “It saves a well person from having to come into the office and … possibly exposing themselves to influenza or possibly the coronavirus.”

Reinhardt said all it takes is for one well person to be exposed to someone who is sick and create a chain reaction of spreading the virus.

“I don’t want to take well people and put them beside sick people,” he said. “One of the worst places in Blair County you can be is in my office, in any doctor’s office, at the emergency room or at an express care facility because you are going to be surrounded by sick people.”

No tests locally

Reinhardt said local health care providers are at a disadvantage because they currently can’t test for the virus.

“We are in a tough spot because we can’t test for coronavirus,” he said. “There is a protocol we have to go through, and we have not been able to get anyone tested. Everybody is working on the testing, but it puts us in a quandary.”

Reinhardt said the test kits have not been distributed yet and that the only way to get a test done is to call the Department of Health.

“The test kits haven’t been handed out, so I can’t do it physically at my office, I can’t do it at UPMC’s lab,” he said. “I have no way to test to tell people whether they are positive or negative.”

Reinhardt said that UPMC is working to produce its own test kits and setting up a facility outside of the hospital where people can get tested.

“We are hoping that is up and running soon,” he said.

Reinhardt said people are reacting to the coronavirus two ways — they are either taking it seriously or feel that it is being overhyped.

Should coronavirus be taken seriously?

“Absolutely,” he said. “It looks like, with all the data we have now, it is very infectious so I don’t know how someone can look at that data and not think it’s serious.”

Reinhardt said there isn’t yet enough known about the coronavirus. He believes the effort to contain it through isolation is the right thing to do.

“It’s very early into its penetration into the United States so that is why we are trying to be ahead of the curve here and slow down the infection rate,” he said. “There are smart people sitting in a room trying to do the right thing.”

Reinhardt said his decision to isolate his well patients from his sick ones was not rooted in fear.

“I’m not afraid of it; I’m planning for it,” he said.

Don’t push the panic button

Dr. Zane Gates of Altoona agrees that people should be taking the coronavirus seriously but cautions against panic.

“The biggest thing we have to do is get the fear-factor down,” he said. “The biggest problem is people are afraid. Be concerned, but do not panic.”

Gates said the fear people are feeling about the coronavirus is in part due to the lack of statistics that are available on it.

“People fear the unknown,” he said. “We need to get some real statistics on this.”

Gates said 26 million people contracted the flu this year and 60,000 died, yet he isn’t seeing the type of fear over the flu as he is with the coronavirus.

“The reason why is because we don’t know its infectivity and kill rate,” he said. “H1N1 was an evil virus, could coronavirus be just as evil? We don’t know yet. H1N1 killed a lot of young, healthy people but we didn’t have this reaction to it.”

Gates said the key is people understanding the realistic statistics of their risks on contracting the coronavirus.

“That is what we have to get to so that there isn’t panic,” he said. “The key to the whole thing is staying calm and realizing the risk.”

Gates said fear leads to panic and panic is what causes people to rush out to the stores and start hoarding.

“You must stay calm,” he said. “That is the key to any pandemic.”

Like Reinhardt, Gates said not being able to test for the virus is putting them at a disadvantage.

“That is the biggest problem,” he said. “We can assess the risk, but we can’t test for it and testing means you can isolate people.”

Containing the virus

Gates said he hasn’t had any increased phone calls from his patients concerned they may have the virus.

“Right now, for us it’s the regular cold and flu season,” he said. “The flu has been a bigger problem than this.”

Gates said he is not currently isolating sick calls from well calls but will do so if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it.

“We haven’t been instructed by the CDC to do so,” he said. “When they instruct us to do so, we will.”

Gates said people shouldn’t mistake the current plan of isolation as a desperation move by officials.

“Calling off schools and canceling things is the right thing to do to prevent things,” he said. “It’s good insurance against something we don’t know about.”

Gates said the incubation period for coronavirus is a couple of weeks so isolating people could be impactful in containing the virus, but he stressed that people need to keep calm.

“We must get the population calmed down,” he said. “You should be more fearful of getting in your car than of dying of this.”

As of 3:19 p.m. Saturday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 47 presumptive, including six confirmed, cases of the coronavirus in 12 counties.

Mirror Staff Writer Rick Boston is at 946-7535.

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