Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

How UAE hospitals handle suspected coronavirus cases

Doctors say the country's health system was already prepared to deal with any infections

Doctors have urged residents not to panic about the potential spread of coronavirus in the UAE, saying the country has “well-established procedures in place” to deal with suspected cases.

The UAE confirmed its first case of the Wuhan coronavirus on Wednesday as the number of infections continued to climb in China, where the outbreak began a little over a month ago.

According to official figures, the number of cases in China jumped to 5,974 on Wednesday, up from 4,515 on Tuesday. It has now also spread to at least 17 countries.

Experts said China could lose the battle to control the spread of the outbreak due to the virus's long incubation period.

There is absolutely no need to panic

Dr Sreehari Pillai, NMC Speciality Hospital

Incubation is generally between three and seven days, but it can be up to two weeks. People are believed to be able to spread the infection during this two-week period.

Dr Sreehari Pillai, medical administrator at NMC Speciality Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said the eventual spread to the UAE was inevitable but there was no need to worry.

“There is absolutely no need to panic because our system was already so geared up with all the news,” he said.

“We were doing a lot of internal training over the past week for all the front-line medical staff. The main question they asked was: 'Do we have the disease here?’ The reply was: 'It is not whether we have it now – it is a matter of when',” he said.

Dr Pillai said the government circulated guidelines for hospitals to follow on January 20 that said patients should be assessed for the virus if they meet certain criteria. These include coughing or having difficulty breathing – with or without a fever. They also include a history of travel to China in the past 14 days, or close contact with a person who is unwell and under investigation for the virus.

If a patient who is exhibiting symptoms has either of those risk factors, there are a series of steps hospitals must follow, Dr Pillai said.

“All healthcare institutions were required to do internal training to assist their preparedness and make sure we had all the required equipment, personal protection equipment and the isolation rooms were ready. So everything was in place already,” he said.

Roy Cooper/ The National
Roy Cooper/ The National

In addition to notifying the Ministry of Health and Prevention immediately, hospitals are required to isolate anyone suspected of having the virus in a negative pressure room, where the air cannot escape, as soon as they are identified as being at risk.

“The patient is admitted into this room and there is a place for staff to change into protective clothing and only these staff are allowed to attend to the patient,” Dr Pillai said.

A swab is then taken from their nose and throat which is taken in a vial to the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City Microbiology Laboratory, which is the only lab with the job of testing the samples in the UAE.

The sample is assigned an electronic tracking number which can be traced. The result of the swabs are then uploaded to a system which the hospital can access.

“We haven’t received any suspected cases at NCM. We are vigilant, but this is flu season,” Dr Pillai said.

“Only patients who fit into specific criteria will be swabbed. They need to have travelled to China and have the symptoms.”

Dr Charles Stanford, senior director at VPS Healthcare, said the procedures should help control the spread of the virus, but there could eventually be other cases.

"They are screening at airports, which will only pick out patients who already have symptoms, who already have a temperature. That may develop somewhere between three days or 14 days," he said.

Anyone who has been in contact with a confirmed or suspected case who then goes on to develop symptoms should remain where they are, but alert a doctor or the health authorities.

"Please phone someone, whether it’s your local doctor or the Ministry of Health," Dr Stanford said.

"Don’t get on a bus or a train and go and infect other people on the way to a hospital. If you have been in contact with someone, stay fairly isolated. And if you do develop symptoms, it may be just an ordinary cold. There are so many cases of influenza going around, it’s probably just that.

"But stay isolated. Get in contact with someone over the phone so they know where you are and they can give you advice on what to do next."

On Wednesday, the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention urged residents not to panic.

“The general public health situation is not cause for concern,” a statement posted to Twitter read.

Updated: January 29, 2020 01:47 PM



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