Public Health Director: ‘This is Unprecedented’

By Payne Horning

Oswego County Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang is helping lead the effort to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, in Oswego County and beyond. He offered some perspective on what is happening on the front lines of this unprecedented health crisis.

Can you compare what’s happening in this pandemic to anything else you’ve experienced during your career or is this truly unprecedented in every way?

This is unprecedented. Working in public health, I deal with many outbreaks, but if you think about it there has never been anything on a scale like this. If you compare this virus with SARS (severe acute respiratory system), they are in the same family and are named very similar, but [COVID-19] is so much more infectious. And if you compare it to the H1N1 pandemic, we had a vaccine. With this, we don’t have a vaccine and we don’t have medicine [to treat it], so this is a big, big difference.

An additional challenge your office is wrestling with is the investigation aspect. You have to track down the contacts each person who tests positive has had with others in the community.

Before it came to our county, we were following state health guidelines — the first phase was case tracking and case isolation and the second phase was mitigation. Now what we are doing is combining the first and second phases. We are tracking cases and finding close contacts and isolating them.

Are you seeing a lot of collaboration between different entities in the medical community in Central New York?

The public health departments have been working together with our healthcare providers. It’s a valuable advantage to work together and important. When I look at how to protect our community, the key is really how to protect our healthcare providers. If they collapse, our community collapses. If they are strong, our community will be well protected.

What can the public do to help stem the tide? 

We need to protect ourselves through personal hygiene — washing your hands with lukewarm water and soap for 20 seconds; if soap and water is not available, using hand sanitizer – and also practicing social distancing.

When – not if – we make it through this crisis, what do you think will have made that recovery possible?

Working together is the key. My whole department and everyone in this building is working very hard and around the clock. The last email I received from someone came at 10 p.m. and the first email [the next day] came at 4 a.m. This is a close community and different agencies, healthcare providers, law enforcement, EMS, public health, social services work —we work together well. That is our hope.

Things to Do

The Oswego County Health Department encourages people to:

• Stay home as much as possible.

• Avoid non-essential gatherings of all types.

• Keep six feet from other people in public spaces.

• Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating.

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

• Get a flu shot.

• Stay home if you are sick.

• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. Medical facilities may even hire a company that provides an EO Sterilization Service to keep these establishments and equipment clean.

• Call your healthcare provider from home if you are experiencing symptoms such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath.

• Do not go to urgent care or an emergency department unless you are experiencing life-threatening conditions.

Photo: Oswego County Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang