NEW BEDFORD — Out of an abundance of caution, the region's largest healthcare network is preparing its medical staff to respond to the coronavirus, the illness that has sickened hundreds in China and killed at least two dozen people in that country.

While several cases of the virus have been reported in the United States, so far there have been no confirmed cases in Massachusetts. Nonetheless, Southcoast Health said it is training its medical staff in how to treat the disease, as well as how to best contain its spread.

Dr. Dani Hackner, chief clinical officer for the medical network, said the SouthCoast region is probably at low risk for the disease, in part because it's not near a major airport with flights from China.

"But we're not planning for luck, we're planning for safety," Hackner said.

Epidemiologists say the coronavirus resembles pathogens such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and other respiratory ailments that previously hit Asian countries.

At St. Luke's Hospital and at other urgent care centers and doctors' offices run by Southcoast Health, doctors and nurses are being advised to carefully screen patients who present with respiratory distress, and being trained in how to isolate potential victims and in other ways contain the disease's spread. Among other things, patients being treated for respiratory ailments will be asked to wear face masks.

For most people, Hackner recommended "lots of hand washing" and trying to keep a distance from those who might be infected. Because the outbreak is viral, antibiotics are not effective in its treatment. Medical staff would instead provide "supportive care" with fluids, fever reducers, and oxygen if breathing becomes very difficult.

People with routine respiratory ailments are advised to contact their medical providers for guidance. Those with bad symptoms, including high fever, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, should seek medical attention immediately and alert medical staff if they have traveled in Asia recently.

The virus was first identified in the city of Wuhan, China and can spread from person to person. Travel restrictions have been imposed in around a dozen Chinese cities, affecting around 30 million people. Nonetheless, the disease has made its way out of the country, with around two dozen cases confirmed outside of China.

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