Michael McNickle

Michael McNickle is the Clatsop County public health director.

Michael McNickle is Clatsop County’s point person on the coronavirus.

As the public health director, he has been working with Ellen Heinitz, a naturopathic physician and the county’s community health project manager, to help prepare for a potential outbreak.

With 14 of the 15 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States so far from Washington state, and the North Coast a tourist destination, the threat from the virus has unnerved many residents.

McNickle has sought to calm fears. “The coronavirus is preventable,” he said. “If you follow good personal hygiene, social distancing, make sure you keep your hands from your face and mouth as much as possible, and — if you are sick — please stay home.”

In an interview on Thursday, McNickle talked about risk, the potential spread of the virus from cruise ships and the importance of relying on science-based sources — and not social media — for information.

Q: What is the most important thing people should know?

A: As of right now, we have no cases of coronavirus in Clatsop County. That’s probably the most important thing.

Secondarily, is that the coronavirus is preventable. If you follow good personal hygiene, social distancing, make sure you keep your hands from your face and mouth as much as possible, and — if you are sick — please stay home. That’s a great take-home message.

And also, if you are sick, call your provider first and talk to them about what you can do and make sure that you go through your symptoms. That’s what your primary care provider is for.

Q: Is there testing available now in the county if I do call my provider?

A: The coronavirus test is not available, unless you meet specific criteria that’s put out by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Oregon Health Authority.

Those include going to the primary care provider. You have to have certain things wrong with you — high fever, you’re showing shortness of breath, you have some signs of pneumonia — and those kind of things. Your provider can do those tests.

And you have to have a viral panel to make sure you don’t have any other viruses, because it could still be influenza A, which is still in our county. So we need to eliminate all of those things before we go to the next step.

Q: Is there any specific outreach being done to care homes for the elderly?

A: Yes. Every Wednesday at 3 p.m. we have a call with all of the providers, like NorthWest Senior and Disability Services, all those care centers.

We call in and we gather information — and we share that. For about an hour, we answer their questions, making sure that we provide them with the most up to date and accurate information we can.

Q: Given Astoria is a port city and the North Coast is a tourist destination, aren’t we at greater risk than, say, if we were in Vernonia?

A: The answer is that if they’re coming from a cruise ship, that the Coast Guard would handle that ...

So they are the ones who would actually do all the work for all the cruise ships and cargo ships, because they have all of the authority on the maritime side.

And so if they get a case, they would, of course, notify OHA (Oregon Health Authority), who then notifies us, and then we notify everyone.

Q: But we’re a tourist destination beyond the water. Hundreds of people come here for events ...

A: Again, it’s about good hygiene.

We recommend people — if you are sick, please don’t come to our events. You should stay home. Get well. Talk to your provider if you’re really sick.

The same thing with mass gatherings or other social events. If you’re the one who’s sick, don’t go. Just stay home. Take care of yourself. Your wellness is more important than that event. And then you can’t spread — even if it isn’t coronavirus, you could be spreading something else.

So we don’t want to have that. We’re working closely with all the places that have natural mass gatherings, like our schools, the care centers, the hospitals. And we have protocols in place for them to deal with that.

Q: Why shouldn’t we be worried, though, about thousands of people coming to Astoria on cruise ships?

A: Because the Coast Guard won’t allow them to port if they have any illnesses.

By law, those ships have to report any illness on those ships to the Coast Guard. So, before they even get to Astoria, they’d be parked out there somewhere, and the Coast Guard would go deal with it.

They would talk to their medical staff on the cruise ships, see what’s going on, and then they’d be able to decide where they’re going to go and how they’re going to do things. Kind of like what’s happening in San Francisco right now (with the Grand Princess). They’re not allowed to disembark until they’re cleared by the Coast Guard.

Q: Some people have been critical of your comments last week comparing the virus to the flu and discounting information on social media. What do you say to them?

A: I say about social media, is that if you really want accurate information, you go to the source that understands it and has science-based information.

I would highly recommend people go to Oregon Health Authority — they have an excellent webpage on the coronavirus — as does the CDC, in very clear, layman’s terms about the top 5 things you need to know about coronavirus. And it’s excellent.

Facebook and other sources may also have that information, but the likelihood of there being some twist in that is a possibility. So we really, in my opinion, always go to the source of the best information.

Q: But comparing it to the flu, do you still believe that it’s no worse?

A: So if you have comorbidity — if you have, like, diabetes or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or some other underlying effect — it’s just like the flu, also, because those folks die from the flu every year, too.

In fact, we had a couple patients just this past weekend die of influenza A, and they were all comorbidity.

So that’s the key take-home, is that if you are (otherwise healthy) with a good immune system, you may have mild to moderate symptoms. If you have comorbidity, and you have some ongoing chronic illnesses, you’re more at risk.

Derrick DePledge is editor of The Astorian. Contact him at 503-791-7885 or ddepledge@dailyastorian.com.

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