Mayor London Breed, along with Doctor Tomas Aragon, Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu and Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, spoke Tuesday at a press conference about city preparations for the coronavirus. (Amanda Peterson/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Breed declares local emergency to counter threat of coronavirus

City officials warn against discrimination while they prepare for the possibility of an outbreak.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Tuesday declared a local emergency to increase city preparations for the novel coronavirus.

The declaration is a legal step that allows officials to funnel resources and staff toward containment of any outbreak that emerges, accelerate emergency planning and raise awareness among residents.

The declaration will be voted on by the Board of Supervisors next Tuesday.

“Although there are still zero confirmed cases in San Francisco residents, the global picture is changing rapidly, and we need to step up preparedness,” said Breed. “We see the virus spreading in new parts of the world every day, and we are taking the necessary steps to protect San Franciscans from harm.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) said coronavirus will in all likelihood begin spreading in U.S. communities and advised Americans to begin preparing for such a scenario.

Coronavirus has spread to about 30 countries, including the U.S., where there are 53 confirmed cases, 10 in California.

The City’s Department of Public Health has been monitoring hundreds of people returning from travel in China and are helping them self-quarantine and watch for symptoms. There have been no positive cases among these people.

“Given the high volume of travel between San Francisco and mainland China and the spread of the virus to other countries, there is a growing likelihood that we will see cases in San Francisco,” said health department Director Dr. Grant Colfax at the press conference.

The impact of stigma and discrimination is already being felt across the Chinese community and among Asian Americans in general.

Asian people are being looked at differently when they are seen coughing or clearing their throats in public, children are being picked on in school, and Chinese restaurants where business is typically booming are now sitting empty, said City Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu.

“Don’t let this disease turn us into racists,” Chu said. “At the end of the day this is about contracting a virus because someone traveled. When I cough, and I haven’t traveled to China for 10 years, it is completely a different situation.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Chinatown Monday and encouraged residents and tourists to continue supporting businesses there. Business owners told Pelosi and media outlets that business was down sharply.

“Precautions have been taken by our city,” she said. “We know that there is concern surrounding tourism, traveling all throughout the world, but we think it’s very safe to be in Chinatown and hope that others will come.”

“This virus is not about race, ethnicity or culture,” Colfax said. “The risk of getting coronavirus is based on travel history and contacts with people who are sick.”

“We know that discrimination causes bad health outcomes. In the case of an emerging illness like coronavirus, stigma may make people less likely to come forward and get help and ask questions,” he added.

Colfax said the three people from other counties who are being treated for coronavirus in San Francisco are doing well.

“Most people who are in self-quarantine at home are eager to cooperate and understand the importance of these actions.” said San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon. “We are prioritizing children, people who live in congregate settings and vulnerable populations as we plan to reduce the potential for harm from the virus in the community. We have been working closely with the Chinese community, who are so impacted by this situation, and also at risk for stigma and discrimination.”

The Department of Public Health previously activated its operations center on Jan. 21 to develop its response, and is working with local hospitals and clinics to screen patients and identify isolation rooms. The City’s Emergency Operations Center was activated on Jan. 27.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen echoed health officials’ call for calm and warning against anti-Asian discrimination in a statement.

“As our health officials continue to monitor the situation closely, I caution San Franciscans against acting out of fear. This virus is not based on race, ethnicity, or culture. We must be vigilant against acts of racial, ethnic, and cultural discrimination and xenophobia against the Chinese community. There is no excuse for this type of behavior, and novel coronavirus fears should not be used to stoke the ugly flames of racism,” Ronen said.

“Fear is a deadly epidemic, we must join together to reject it and to keep our work based on science and facts,” Colfax said.

Breed made it clear that there is no discouragement of public events or gatherings at this point. Aragon encouraged people to take standard precautions including washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, covering up when coughing or sneezing, staying home when sick, getting flu shots and following the direction of health officials upon return from a country with ongoing coronavirus infections.

DPH also encouraged families to prepare for the possibility of an oubreak by making arrangements for how they will manage in the event of a school closure and planning how they will care for sick family members without contracting the illness themselves.

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