SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — While no state in the region has yet to report a coronavirus case, Sanford Health officials say they're ready for the day an infected patient walks through their doors.

The health system has ramped up its emerging threats committee, keeping up to date on recommendations from federal and international public health authorities and implemented new protocols to address the possible arrival of coronavirus in a Sanford facility.

"Sanford is prepared," said Dr. Susan Hoover, medical director of infection control for Sanford's Sioux Falls region. "If you go to a Sanford clinic anywhere in the enterprise, you'll be asked about relevant travel and symptoms.”

The coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year, has sickened tens of thousands with the respiratory illness public health officials have labeled COVID-19, and killed over 3,000, mostly all in China. The virus has since spread to numerous countries, including the U.S.

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As of Monday afternoon, the disease has sickened dozens in the U.S. and killed six people, all in a Seattle suburb, with confirmed cases in 10 states. It has yet to appear in the Upper Midwest, the home of Sanford Health’s footprint.

'Better safe than sorry'

Sanford’s emerging threats committee consists of representatives from numerous parts of the health system, and is meeting twice weekly to consider the latest recommendations from public health officials for action within Sanford, Hoover said.

Sanford Health’s systemwide changes to handle the coronavirus include setting up a screening process to ask patients about their travel and any symptoms, even if they come to see a Sanford health provider for another concern.

Sanford has a "better safe than sorry” policy, so it has been screening a lot of people, said Dr. Avish Nagpal, an infectious disease specialist for Sanford Health based in Fargo.

If patients meet the screening criteria, they’re immediately sequestered in a private room, ideally a special room with negative air pressure, so air from the room isn't directed outside. Sanford workers take the needed precautions to avoid transmission of the virus, and they immediately reach out to the state health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine how to proceed.

“We don’t have any cases of the coronavirus here, but the symptoms are so nonspecific and so common to all the winter respiratory viruses that a lot of people will screen ‘yes’ for a respiratory question, but screen negative for travel," Nagpal said.

If a patient meets the screening protocols, medical staff will collect testing samples, usually a swab from the nose or mouth, and typically also a blood sample, he said.

Hoover said Sanford Health has no shortage of protective equipment for its staff, unlike some places elsewhere in the U.S.

It is important for everyone to remember that Sanford Health is working with the best information available from public health officials. That information will likely change as the coronavirus situation develops, she said.

"The CDC and the authorities are under a lot of pressure to get a lot of information out there quickly, so we have to remember we’re working on the best knowledge we have at the time," she said. "If it changes down the road, it’s not because somebody was lying, or trying to deceive or didn’t know, it's because new information is coming out."