‘Just a matter of when’: Guam braces for coronavirus arrival

Around 200 public, private, military and non-profit community members are expected to gather Wednesday and Thursday this week, to pore over and finetune Guam’s pandemic response plan.

The Department of Public Health and Social Services is now preparing for “when” and not “if” the coronavirus arrives on island as it appears inevitable the disease will make its way to our shores. 

PNC News caught up with DPHSS Director Linda DeNorcey Tuesday at the Pacific Star Hotel.

DeNorcey and her Public Health team were there preparing for a two-day pandemic conference.

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It’s a matter of when

DeNorcey is adding her voice to the string of other officials on Guam who said it’s only a matter of time before the virus appears on our island.

“Of course, we’re expecting it. So we just want to be prepared. We’re so close geographically to South Korea, which as you know, has already been Level 3. As well as Japan and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is Level 1 and Japan is Level 2,” said DeNorcey.

“So being so close geographically, and of course, with the number of visitors that arrive on Guam … this makes us vulnerable to coronavirus,” she added.

DeNorcey is referencing the Center for Disease Control’s travel advisory list, which upgraded South Korea to the Level 3 category last week, asking Americans to avoid all non-essential travel to that country.

“Yes, it’s just a when, I would say. When it happens, we’ve got to be prepared,” reiterated DeNorcey.

She referred to the virus as a public threat to Guam.

Pandemic review meetings

With that in mind, around 200 public, private, military and non-profit community members are expected to gather Wednesday and Thursday this week, to pore over and finetune Guam’s pandemic response plan.

DeNorcey said the sessions will focus on filling the gaps within the pre-existing emergency plan, amalgamate best practices and ensure that every player — from EMS to clinics to education facilities — knows exactly what role they’ll play when the plan is put into action.

“This is very specific ranging from every angle: isolation and quarantine to mass fatalities … we’re preparing for everything. Also, there are chapters in there for ECHO – education outreach in the community and also, anti-viral distribution and all those PODS – points of distributions and so forth,” said DeNorcey.

She went on to say that, “throughout all this, we’re just integrating; we’re putting all our forces together and making it fine-tuned. So we know how we’re going to work together and respond. Make it a lot more efficient.”

Guam’s pandemic response plan has 11 chapters. The discussions over the next two days will fall under these 7 headings:

  1. Command & Control – Emergency Medical Services
  2. Surveillance Activities Lab Response
  3. Isolation & Quarantine
  4. Medical Surge
  5. Antiviral Distribution on Vaccine Delivery
  6. Psych-Social ECHO (community outreach)
  7. Mass Fatality

Tuesday was a closed-door session for Public Health employees who will be facilitating and documenting conversations over the next two days.

Wednesday will be the breakout session day and around 186 participants are expected.

Thursday is planned as a practical application day, where the 170 participants will be challenged with mock scenarios they could face while responding to coronavirus cases.

DeNorcey said it’s crucial to have everyone trained in a practical setting, so they’re aware of exactly how to respond when the time comes.

The sessions run from 8 am to 5 pm Wednesday and Thursday.

The Governor and DeNorcey will be giving brief remarks to open the sessions on Wednesday morning at 8:30 am.

Decisions to be made

Among the many important decisions being made over the next two days, DeNorcey said, will be exact locations, where people would be isolated or quarantined on island.

She said isolation plans top her priority list, as slowing the progression of the disease on Guam, should it arrive, would be crucial to avoid mass contamination.

Public Health had previously sent letters to 75 clinics on island and DeNorcey said they have received around 20 back. She said they’re compiling all the information to determine where people could be held if they’re infected or have potentially been exposed to infection.

“We’re also looking at the Skilled Nursing Facility [Unit], to be a source of isolation,” added DeNorcey.

Mass care will also top the agenda for decision making, “if many people don’t need to be at the hospital, how are we going to take care of them? They don’t need to be overwhelming the emergency room or urgent care, not only at the hospital but also the other healthcare clinics,” said DeNorcey.

DeNorcey said while discussions will be happening within the hotel conference walls, their team is well into putting all the pieces in place for an integrated response.

“The Governor has been really, really adamant in getting more staff hired. So we’re working on that right now to get all these unemployed nurses and RNs and LPNs and Nurse Aides to be on-call and they’ll be paid. This is one of the things we’re already working on, and getting them trained up to take the lead in helping us with the port of entries.”

The community’s role

“We’re doing the best we can and we’re doing everything we can to make sure our island is prepared,” said DeNorcey.

But she said there’s also a role for the community to play.

“We also have to look at non-pharmaceutical interventions … basic things like hand-washing frequently, making sure you practice good cough etiquette, clean surfaces that are frequently touched and staying at home … doing home-isolation to prevent other people from being infected.”

Next steps

When finalized, DeNorcey said this beefed-up blueprint will serve as the island’s manifest for Coronavirus, and any other pandemic response. She said it’s a living document, meaning it will constantly be reviewed and revised based on best practices and lessons learned.

Public Health expects the more thorough pandemic plan to be ready within two weeks.

DeNorcey also said they’re still waiting for the CDC test kits for the virus after the federal health agency recalled the tests to fix a malfunction.