Are our cities prepared for a pandemic coronavirus problem? | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Palo Alto Online |

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By Diana Diamond

Are our cities prepared for a pandemic coronavirus problem?

Uploaded: Mar 1, 2020

I went to two parties this past weekend, and the main conversational topic at each was the coronavirus (COVID-19). People were concerned but not worried, but all had read a lot about it, and other than washing one’s hands frequently and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or one’s sweater, we were unsure what else to do. Many had tried to buy masks and hand sanitizers, but complained the store shelves were empty. We kidded about staying six feet away from each other as we talked.

But those conversations got me to thinking, what are our cities doing about the possible pandemic proportions of this virus, which statistically can spread more rapidly and kill more people than the regular flu virus.

I looked at Palo Alto’s website and there is scant local information there. A special web (
page was created and reported the following:
“The City’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) is participating in the Santa Clara County briefings as well as monitoring advisories issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). OES has also been in contact with Stanford Health Care and other hospitals and clinics to coordinate on preparation and contingency planning. The City is also in regular contact with community health care providers (hospitals and clinics).”

But here are some of the questions that I want answers to:
• Can the city help the pharmacies and stores stock up with more facemasks and hand sanitizers?
• Are ambulances a preferred way of getting medical assistance for a person with coronavirus symptoms, and is that better than my taking a spouse or friend to the nearby emergency room and sit in a waiting room full of other patients?
• Are the fire department’s ambulances equipped to take patients with coronavirus symptoms to the hospital and will those patients be isolated? And how much will an ambulance cost?
• Now is the time to plan and prepare. Has the council discussed what to do?
• Are discussions going on between the school district and the city’s Office of Emergency Services over alerts about potential virus victims? I heard rumors Saturday that two kids in Palo Alto schools had parents who were exposed to the virus. Were those children allowed to go to their classes? Who makes a decision about what the schools should do?
• Are Palo Alto City Council members aware of a possible pandemic and are they or the city manager directing the OES, the police and the fire departments on what to do? Who is really in charge of decisions in an outbreak?
• Who should residents of Palo Alto contact at City Hall if they want advice about what to do with a possible coronavirus patient? What is the direct telephone number and will a live person answer the phone? Who is that person?
• What kind of coordination is there between Stanford and the city about having people stay at home? For example, if Stanford cancels its classes, will students be walking around downtown for lunch? And will Stanford be screening its students if they want to leave the campus?
• Have city officials met with businesses in town to discuss potential problems if there is an epidemic?
• What are grocery and pharmacy stores planning to do if there is an epidemic?
• Is there a way to make it feasible for people and children to stay home a long time – away from their jobs and their schools? Is this a possibility?

All of this sounds draconian, I admit, but this virus travels fast and knows no city, county or state boundaries, so it’s a problem for everyone living here.

On Stanford’s web page, Michelle Mello, professor of law and professor of health research and policy, is a leading empirical health scholar whose research is focused on understanding the effects of law and regulation on health care delivery and population health outcomes.

She writes: “What the government did in Wuhan, China, is highly unusual; typically, isolation and quarantine orders are far narrower and better tailored to the people who have actually been exposed to the virus. It’s virtually impossible to maintain a mass quarantine for a long period because critical supplies will run out and social unrest will grow. A scenario like that in the US is highly unlikely, but it’s striking to me that there has been so little discussion of how to make it feasible for people to stay at home for extended periods of time, whether under a government order or voluntarily.”

If this epidemic expands, and I certainly hope it doesn’t, we still need a lot of advance planning and public information. We’re all in this together and we look to our local officials to help lead us to the safest approaches we need to take.