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Preventing COVID-19

Local infectious diseases expert gives perspective on virus

By Vida Volkert

Staff writer eastnavajo@gallupindependent.com

GALLUP - Dr. Christopher Gonzaga was watching the news at his house in Gallup In early January when he first learned about the coronavirus outbreak in China. Gonzaga, a primary care physician specializing in internal medicine and infectious diseases at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, thought about some of his former colleagues, who at the time were working as doctors in hospitals in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"I was in the house watching the news ... and it came as a flash from China, about people dying from respiratory illness, and it was spreading," Gonzaga said during an interview Tuesday. "I thought, 'This virus is something that we haven't met before and it has the potential to spread all over' - especially with the way they do things in China, they are very restricted on how they give information."

Gonzaga, who is originally from the Philippines, said he worried about his former colleagues and his family back home. The Philippines is an archipelagic country in Southeast Asia bounded by the South China Sea with daily air and sea traffic to and from China.

"Even though we don't have any [confirmed] cases here in New Mexico, this pandemic hit very close to me," Gonzaga said.

See Coronavirus, Page 5

This transmission electron microscopic image shows an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots.

Courtesy Photo/CDC/Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin

McKinley County Emergency Management Coordinator Adam Berry opens a meeting of the Local Emergency Planning Committee at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools Student Support Center in Gallup Tuesday afternoon. Area agencies met behind closed doors to give an update on the coronavirus situation.

Richard Reyes/Independent

Dr. Christopher Gonzaga

Gallup Fire Marshal Jacob LaCroix and Interim Fire Chief Jesus "Chuy" Morales speak with Gallup Police Capt. Erin Toadlena-Pablo prior to a Local Emergency Planning Committee meeting at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools Student Support Center in Gallup Tuesday afternoon.

Richard Reyes/Independent

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Virus spreads worldwide

By Feb. 2, more than 14,000 people had been infected worldwide, the number of coronavirus-related deaths in mainland China had jumped to more than 360, and the first known fatality outside China was reported in the Philippines - a 44-yearold man from Wuhan, China, where the virus is believed to have originated. The man died after developing severe pneumonia, according to authorities.

By Feb. 15, the first coronavirus related fatality outside of Asia was reported in France, a Chinese tourist who died in France after contracting the virus. The victim was an 80-year-old man from China's Hubei province.

By Feb. 20, a 38-year-old man became the first record ed patient with the virus in Italy, but Italian authorities believe the virus had been circulating around before this case was discovered because hospitals in northern Italy were reporting a high number of pneumonia cases. Because the symptoms were similar to Influenza, it was believed at the time that these cases were seasonal flu and were treated as such.

About a month later, Italy reported the highest number of cases and deaths outside of China, with more than 630 deaths and at least 10,140 people infected as of Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, more than 118,905 coronavirus cases have been reported worldwide, and at least 4,269 people have died as a result.

Elderly at risk

While some of the coronavirus related fatalities reported around the world include relatively young patients, such as the 44-year-old man from Wuhan who died in the Philippines, the majority of the fatalities involved elderly people with compromised immune systems or other health related issues, Gonzaga said.

The National Health Institute reports the average age of coronavirus patients who died because of the virus in Italy is 81.

"The mortality rate is among the elderly with chronic illness. The elderly folks who have what you call other chronic medical illness, like those with chronic heart failure, chronic heart disease, they are the ones who are more prone to develop complications," Gonzaga said.

Gonzaga said no confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported in Gallup or New Mexico. He added that patients showing up at RMCHCS facilities presenting respiratory symptoms are being diagnosed with the seasonal flu or other respiratory illness, but there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases.

"We have a flu season, that's the other confusing part of it because we are still coming down with the flu season," he said. "It extends until April. That's why the New Mexico Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control want us to screen those people for influenza and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]."

Symptoms and testing

The symptoms for coronavirus include a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit with respiratory illness such as cough and shortness of breathe.

"It has to come with a fever," he said.

Gonzaga said RMCHCS currently has four airborne infection isolation rooms that would be used for people presenting extreme cases.

"We have four of those in the hospital, but if they over flow we would have to work with other hospitals in New Mexico to prevent the disease from spreading."

He said RMCHCS is working closely with Gallup Indian Medical Center, shar ing information and making sure no cases go undetected. The hospital does not have any coronavirus testing kits to distribute to the public. "Ideally, they should be available for community to test if they want to, but we don't have it for the public or private hospitals," he said. "It has to be requested from the [state] Department of Health. We requested kits, but they are still demand and they allowed us to make our own testing kit as long as it is certified by the National Laboratory Certification." The New Mexico Department of Health reported a total of 69 people have been tested for coronavirus in the state as of Monday, and all cases have returned negative for the virus, he added.

Gonzaga said viruses have been around for hundreds of years, and cited the Bubonic Plague of the 1300s, the Spanish Flu of 1918, Polio, AIDS, MERS, SARS, hantavirus and the H1N1 pandemic of 2009-2010. He recalled that during the H1N1 pandemic, the halls at RMCHCS were packed. The H1N1 pandemic ended in August 2010.

Based on current statistics, "80% of the people with coronavirus do well," he added.


Gonzaga advises community members to practice everyday preventive actions such as washing your hands as often as possible with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content.

"Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth especially with unwashed hands, avoid handshakes and hugs and oth er close contact with people who are sick," he said. "If you are infected, stay at home, cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash. You should also clean and disinfect touched objects and surfaces frequently. If you are sick, wear a mask if you go outside to keep from spreading the illness to others. There is still a great deal we don't know about the coronavirus."

In a news release Tuesday, RMCHCS CEO David Conejo said efforts at the hospital are primarily focused on testing anyone showing symptoms, providing adequate care for infected residents, preparing hospital staff with infection control related practices, updating the community through the hospital's website, and sharing information with local and state medical officials.

"Plans by the hospital include weekly meetings to ensure adherence to state and national guidelines, monitoring of supplies such as personal protective equipment, respiratory equipment and masks for medical staff and patients suspected to have the virus, sanitation supplies for hand washing and normal hospital disinfectant solutions," Conejo stated in the news release. "The hospital urges those who believe they have the coronavirus to call ahead so it can plan a safe entrance that minimizes the exposure to others. In addition, a plan is being developed to set-up a coronavirus hotline to answer resident's questions or report any cases so those with symptoms can be tested and isolated, if recommended."

Residents will be able to call a hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when the hotline is set up.

The RMCHCS website will offer updates on this and other coronavirus updates. In the meantime, patients are asked to call their medical providers for questions or refer to the CDC and Department of Health websites: www.cdc. gov/COVID19 or cv.nmhealth. org

Gallup Fire Department Assistant Chief of Training & EMS Michael Hoffman speaks with Adam Berry, the emergency management coordinator for McKinley County, prior to a Local Emergency Planning Committee meeting at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools Student Support Center in Gallup Tuesday afternoon. Area agencies met behind closed doors to give an update on the coronavirus situation.

Richard Reyes/Independent