MURRAY — Toward the end of last week, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 became real in Murray and Calloway County.

For the first time, the county joined other Kentucky counties in having actual documented cases of this new illness that has basically brought the entire world to a halt. Though several local health officials had been saying something to the extent of “it was a matter of time” before COVID-19 made its appearance in the community, the news still destroyed any perception that might have existed that somehow Calloway County would make it through the global pandemic untouched.

So now that Murray and Calloway County is in this fray, what next? At the top of the list, say local officials, is to not panic, though the urge may be hard to resist. They also urged everyone to do what state and federal officials have been preaching for well past a week now.

“We cannot stress that enough, to avoid social gatherings right now,” said Calloway County Health Department Director of Public Health Amy Ferguson on Friday, the day the department announced publicly the first documented case in the county. “This is a way of life that we’re just not accustomed to. By nature, people love to socialize and so it’s going to be an adjustment for everybody.”

Somebody else at the center of this situation is Murray-Calloway County Hospital CEO Jerry Penner, who is carefully monitoring this situation because of how it has the potential to overrun the local healthcare system. He said that people need to know that just because they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, it does not automatically mean they need to be admitted to a hospital.

“Literature right now and smart docs out there right now will tell you that 80% of the people who contract the virus will have very mild symptoms or be asymptomatic (which means no symptoms whatsoever),” Penner said, noting that while this has been proven, and perhaps should help lower the proverbial temperature when it comes to the fear factor of this illness, there is a caveat.

“Along those lines, this means you basically could be a carrier. Now here’s the problem – even if contracted, the experience right now is that the first two to 14 days (of being infected) can go by and you’re not showing any signs or symptoms whatsoever, but you’re still spreading the virus. That’s the whole key and that’s what people are not understanding.

“They’re thinking, ‘Well, I’m well. I’m OK.’ The problem with that is I don’t have a test that can prove that (only patients exhibiting symptoms are being tested in Kentucky).”

What local officials do not want to see is a repeat of what has happened the past two weeks in Italy, where that country’s health care system was overrun. Ferguson said Friday that she hopes some very strong measures ordered the past several days by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear will pay dividends in slowing the spread of the virus. These actions include closing all Kentucky restaurants to dine-in business, while also closing facilities such as gyms and hair salons and more or less ordering the discontinuing of events that would have large gatherings of people in a single room, including church services.

“From a personal viewpoint, I hope that we have taken measures soon enough that the United States will not get to the point Italy got to,” she said.

“If the medical system gets hit with a tsunami, I can’t handle it,” Penner said. “But if you flatten the curve out to where a few people are getting sick every day, that’s great. If a lot of people, though, get sick really, really fast? I neither have enough medical support or ventilator support for resources to be able to take care of them, so (citizens) need to help us flatten the curve.

“All you have to do is look at experience in Italy to know how bad this could get. It overwhelmed them. They absolutely got overwhelmed. In some cases, it looks exactly like the pattern that is happening in Italy is happening here (as far as the pace of cases being reported), and that would be just horrific for us here. We just have to be smart. Use the wisdom we already know. Follow the basic steps of practicing social distancing (staying at least 6 feet from others and limiting exposure to others to 30 minutes or less), wash your hands and stay away from people sick or you know are sick. We have to be wise, as wise as we possibly can, to ensure we don’t have that tsunami that takes over our medical system. That would be one very difficult thing for us to deal with.”

Along with the message that you should not panic, Calloway County Health Department Director of Nursing Kim Paschall said people also need to stay in tune with new information when it is released, such as what has been revealed in the past few days when it comes to the main age group affected by COVID-19.

“Our older populations are more vulnerable,” Paschall said of information that has been hammered into the public the past several weeks, noting that people over the age of 60 are probably the most likely patients, which is why they probably need to exercise social distancing as much as anyone.

“But there are people now testing positive for this coronavirus who are younger than age 60 (and are exhibiting severe symptoms). So that tells you that anyone can get this. This is the main reason why social distancing and avoiding these large community gatherings is so important.”

Symptoms of COVID-19 include a fever of at least 100 degrees, cough, shortness of breath and any other flu-like symptoms, including body aches, general fatigue, headaches, chills and dizziness. Paschall said anyone exhibiting these symptoms, especially fever and shortness of breath, should contact their primary care provider immediately. She said they can determine a plan for treatment at a medical facility or at home.  

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