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March 23, 2020 Central Mass. HEALTH - Spring 2020

Protect and prepare: As coronavirus spreads, health officials urge people to be smart and think about how their actions impact others

Photo | Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention COVID-19

COVID-19, better known as coronavirus, has trampled its way across Asia, swept through Europe and, to much American’s dismay, touched down in the USA.

As of March 16, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported cases in 49 states with a total of 3,487 infected persons and 68 deaths.

With cases popping up across the country and social media spreading some of the pandemic’s darkest rumors and conspiracies, it’s no surprise citizens are stocking up on hand sanitizer and hoarding face masks and toilet paper. But are these measures enough to ward off a community outbreak and stop future transmissions?   

To answer this question, it’s important to first understand who among the population is at risk. 

According to the CDC, “early information out of China shows that some people are at higher risk for serious illness than others. Those people are older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.” 
Studies show young, healthy persons may not be as susceptible to COVID-19; an unsettling twist for scientists considering asymptomatic persons may be unknowingly spreading the disease within their communities.  

“Everyone thinks that they’re going to die if they catch it (COVID-19) but that’s just not true,” said Dr. Robert Finberg, chair of the Department of Medicine at UMass Memorial Medical Center and UMass Medical School in Worcester. “Healthy young people are not at high risk. It’s the elderly, specifically those over 80, and those with severe immune dysfunctions, who are dying. It’s our responsibility as a community to protect them.”  

People are becoming overly consumed about self-preservation when, in reality, the data shows illness will be mild for the majority who get sick, Finberg said.

UMass Memorial’s biggest concern is there will not be enough resources should everyone flock to the hospital when they develop symptoms.  

“We simply don’t have enough beds,” said Finberg about UMass Memorial Medical Group. “We are recommending that people who are not in high-risk groups (young people) not come to the hospital if they think they have the virus.”

This may seem like a contradictory statement, coming from a healthcare facility, but it’s one that is being echoed across the country. According to the CDC, people who are mildly ill should be isolated at home for the duration of their illness and only seek medical attention should symptoms worsen.

Prevention is key

So, what should young, non-immunocompromised people do to ward off sickness and prepare for an outbreak?

“Wash your hands! Gosh, we are taught this in kindergarten!” says Angela Wilson, clinical microbiology instructor at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

“Wash your hands and keep them away from your mouth, nose, eyes, and portals of entry. Stay away from those who are infected and don’t touch contaminated surfaces,” Wilson said. 

As face masks continue to fly off the shelf, a global shortage is predicted to only get worse. This is a serious problem for medical personnel who rely on masks to prevent viral spread. However, contrary to popular thought, masks are not recommended as a preventative measure, and the CDC does not advise healthy people to wear them. 

“If you’re healthy, it doesn’t really make sense,” said Finberg. “If you get the virus on your hands and then adjust the mask – therefore touching your face – you are effectively bypassing the mask and rendering it useless. If you’re not washing your hands, the face mask won’t help you.

“If you’re sick, a mask could help contain the spread, but it’s not something that we are recommending healthy people go out and buy,” said Finberg.

Besides handwashing, another way to protect yourself from contracting COVID-19 is to be cognizant of what you’re touching. 

CDC suggests – whenever possible – to avoid high-touch surfaces in public places and to practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces within your home. Surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, handles, faucets, sinks and cell phones. 

To ensure you’re cleaning with the right products, the Center for Biocide Chemistries has produced a list of COVID-19 Fighting Products. This list, which can be found on the CDC’s website as well as on the American Chemistry Council’s website, includes brands such as Purell, Clorox, Lysol, and Simple Green regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is a voluntary listing of products that are EPA regulated,” said Komal Jain, executive director of the Center for Biocide Chemistries. “The EPA sets forth criteria that says these companies must provide data proving that the product destroys a virus that is harder to kill than COVID-19.” 

According to the American Chemistry Council, viruses can be generally categorized into three groups, according to the structure. Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill. All of the fighting products on the COVID-19 Fighting Products list have been proven strong enough to neutralize the virus. 

Preparing for a pandemic

Despite preventative action, the pandemic of COVID-19 has reached our borders and, collectively, health professionals are all saying the same thing – communal outbreaks are inevitable. 

The number countries are on the CDC’s Avoid Non-essential Travel list has risen to about 30, including China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. Most recently, the U.S. Department of State advised U.S. travelers, particularly those with underlying health issues, avoid cruise ship travel. 

Considering the risk of a localized outbreak, the CDC recommends all persons take the below immediate preparedness steps:

  • Contact your doctor and obtain extra medications so you’ll have enough on-hand in case there is an outbreak and you need to stay home for an extended period. 
  • Stock up on over-the-counter medicines to treat mild symptoms should you contract COVID-19 and need to self-quarantine.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick and people who may have been exposed.
  • Clean your hands often and avoid touching your face, nose, and mouth.
  • Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Avoid non-essential travel including planes and cruises. 

At the end of the world day

“It’s important to stay calm,” said Wilson. “The word outbreak tends to breed panic. This is an old virus, but it’s spreading in a new way. People need to keep things in perspective, keeping in mind that those who are not faring well would also not fare well against the flu virus, but no one is talking about that.” 

The disease is currently thought to spread via respiratory droplets, warranting precautions against COVID-19 should mimic that of seasonal flu prevention. Consistent handwashing, habitual disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces, and, within reason, avoidance of public gatherings, is the best way to protect yourself from getting sick. 

“This is not the apocalypse,” said Finberg. “But it is an unfortunate pandemic that we are going to suffer through. We are asking that people focus on protecting their older relatives, especially those who are infirm. Focus on sanitation, that is what’s vital.”

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