As the new coronavirus claimed its first U.S. victim this weekend amid a growing global spread, medical staff are seeking to educate the public about the basics of this virus, what they can do to keep themselves well, and what things might look like if it becomes a pandemic.
Spectrum Health doctors are sharing the following tips in Q&A form:
1. Why you should wash your hands often – and don’t touch your face.
“Viruses spread when contaminated particles enter your system through your nose, mouth or eyes. If you limit exposure and keep your hands clean and away from your face, you lower your chances of contracting any virus. COVID-19 is no more or less contagious than the common cold.” — Dr. Russell Lampen, infectious diseases division chief.
To stock up on handwashing supplies, check here.
2. Wear a mask to contain your cold/flu symptoms, especially while traveling.
“This will help you keep your germs to yourself. If you are symptom-free, wearing a mask won’t provide much protection — unless you wear a high-end N95 mask with an air-purifying respirator and high-efficiency air filter.” — Dr. Christina Fahlsing, infectious disease physician.
If you need to stock up on disposable masks, check here.
For an example of an N95 mask, check here.
3. Rest assured that patients are being screened.
“Spectrum Health is asking all patients about their travel history. Those considered most at risk are people who have traveled to China, South Korea, Iran, Italy or Japan or who have been in close contact with someone who has traveled to one of those areas and has been sick.” — Lampen.
4. If you feel sick, stay home.
“Many cold, flu and other viral diseases spread by person-to-person contact and can be contracted by simply being within 3-5 feet of an infected person. Staying home while you are sick will give you time to rest and recuperate and will also limit exposure to others.” — Dr. Rosemary Olivero, pediatric infectious diseases section chief.
5. It’s not too late for a flu shot.
“The flu vaccine won’t impact whether you get coronavirus,” Lampen said. But there is always the potential for co-infection – getting both coronavirus and influenza would deliver a double whammy to your immune system.
“Getting a flu vaccine is another way to stay healthy,” he said.
6. If COVID-19 causes severe disruption in everyday life in the U.S., how do we prepare for that?
“My hope is that it will feel like a bad flu season to us,” Lampen said. “I think we are going to see things like the potential cancellation of extracurricular events like church services. We might see schools being closed, and maybe sporting events canceled,” he said.
Spectrum Health infectious disease specialists say now is the time to prepare for these possibilities. Do you have a job where you could work from home? If so, would your employer allow that? And if you are a parent, how will you care for your children if schools and daycare operations are closed?
7. Will there be a supply chain disruption? Will people still be able to get food from the grocery stores?
Given what’s known so far about the virus and its mortality rate, Lampen does not foresee a complete disruption in the supply of goods. It’s not something that should impact the availability of food and medicine.
“For there to be a supply chain disruption, we would have to have a lot of people sick,” he said.
He thinks it might be a similar scenario to what happened during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. That era saw events canceled and schools closed to curb the spread of the disease in areas hard hit by the virus.
8. Are we talking about a pandemic?
No pandemic has been declared by the World Health Organization. For that to happen, there would have to be intensive and widespread community transmission of the virus worldwide. However, WHO leaders say COVID-19 has the potential to become a pandemic. It’s preparing for that possibility. Spectrum Health’s Lampen said the WHO is trying to avoid causing needless fear while encouraging preparedness.
9. How dangerous is COVID-19?
“We still don’t know the true severity of it,” Lampen said. “It’s hard to know because it’s such a limited population involved.”
In Wuhan, China, the death rate is 2% to 4%. But outside Wuhan, it is far lower—about 0.7%, according to the World Health Organization.
“There will be a number of people who will have a mild respiratory illness that causes limited or no symptoms at all,” Lampen said. “And there will be a population that will be sicker and require hospitalization.”
He said the elderly and adults with chronic medical conditions are the most likely to suffer serious illness.
10. What symptoms does COVID-19 cause?
There are lower respiratory symptoms, including a cough and shortness of breath. Fevers are common with this infection as well.
11. How is the COVID-19 virus transmitted?
“What we are seeing is that this virus appears to spread easily. It appears to spread by droplets – when you sneeze and cough,” Lampen said.
“Transmission in the United States is still somewhat limited. But I agree with the CDC that it has spread into too many places. It seems like it’s too hard to contain at this point.”
12. How can we protect ourselves and help slow the spread of this virus?
“Stay home if you’re sick. Make sure you wash your hands. Get a flu shot if you haven’t gotten one,” Lampen said.
13. How important is hand washing?
This is your first line of defense
“Not only can you get sick from people coughing and sneezing close to you, but often times, the things they cough and sneeze actually land on your body and you touch it with your hands,” Olivero said. “And if you put your hands on your eyes or nose or mouth, you can then infect yourself.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people disinfect frequently-touched objects and surfaces (countertops, doorknobs, bathroom faucets) using a regular household cleaning spray or disinfectant wipes.
14. How long should you really wash your hands?
“You should have running water and an adequate amount of soap. You should apply soap onto the palm of your hand and, using friction, wash your hands throughout the top of your hands, the back of your hands, in between your fingers, under your nails and around your cuticle beds,” Spectrum Health infection prevention manager Doreen Marcinek, DNP, RN, explained. “Do this for a minimum of 20 seconds. An easy way to remember this is to sing in your head the song Happy Birthday.”
15. Given the current low number of cases in the U.S., why is there so much concern about this?
“If this comes through and infects a big swath of the population – even if it’s like a bad flu season – it would be like getting two flu seasons back to back,” Lampen said. “That would tax the health care system.”
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