By SARA ARTHURS
for the review times
Do you feel scared and helpless as you read the news of the coronavirus?
There is a lot of scary news, a lot that still is unknown and a lot that is out of our control. But there are also things individuals — and organizations — can do to prepare.
The new coronavirus has infected more than 100,000 people worldwide, causing more than 3,000 deaths. As of Friday, there were still no confirmed cases in Ohio, but Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton told the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this week, “There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll have cases.”
Chad Masters, epidemiologist and emergency response planner at Hancock Public Health, said it’s hard to predict how bad the outbreak will be. He said there are efforts to screen people, such as when they come into airports, but “we can’t catch everybody.” He said local and state health departments, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are working to prepare.
“Remember, we know how it spreads. … It’s spread by droplets,” similar to influenza, he said. So protect your eyes, nose and mouth, and wash your hands.
Good hand hygiene is “your main weapon,” Masters said.
Masters said those responsible for places where lots of people gather, such as a church or the library, might provide signs reminding people to cover their cough and sneeze, and also provide hand sanitizer. He said washing your hands — for 20 seconds with warm water and soap — is still the preferred method of keeping them clean, but when that isn’t an option, hand sanitizer is “the next best thing.”
He said people should also avoid touching their face, although realistically, “everybody does it.”
And wipe your phone with disinfectant wipes, not only to prevent coronavirus, but other illnesses, Masters said. “All these different bugs — they’re on things.”
People might be looking for other advice, and it may seem “washing your hands is just so easy and obvious,” said Steven Martin, dean of the college of pharmacy at Ohio Northern University, who did postdoctoral study in infectious disease and critical illness. But doing simple things like this can help.
“Avoid people who are sick,” he said.
He said often in the United States, people go to work even when they’re sick. For those who work in the service industry, there may not be someone else to step in, and people in many fields may feel “they can’t get by without us.” As a pharmacist, Martin realizes that if he worked at a community pharmacy and got sick and couldn’t come to work, he too would wonder who would be doing his work.
Masters said food service workers, for example, generally do not get sick days. And plumbers cannot exactly work from home. But many other people could do so, if their employer would “think outside the box,” Masters said. He encouraged businesses to consider this.
And Masters said during the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, employers who count absences on a point system were encouraged to suspend this, so someone who was off work for several days wouldn’t face disciplinary action.
Martin encouraged employers to set policies that emphasize staying home when employees are sick, “because you’ll just infect other people” if you come in. And especially in these times, employers could have “some grace to allow people to stay home.” If normally an employer requires a doctor’s note if off work for a period of time, maybe suspend that policy for a while so “people can stay home and not worry about retribution from their employers.”
Businesses, such as schools, need to think about what they’d do if many people couldn’t come in.
Masters said during the H1N1 outbreak, the health department told businesses to be prepared for an up to 40% absentee rate, as employees who weren’t sick themselves could be caring for sick family members.
He sent information out to schools recently with guidance from the CDC on how to prepare. The health department does have the power to cancel a mass gathering, but “we’re not there yet,” he said.
Masters said you should, in general, approach people as if they might have an illness. Say to yourself, “I don’t know their health status” and approach them “with a certain level of caution.”
It always makes sense to have “contingency supplies,” in case you can’t get to the store for a few days, Martin said. This doesn’t mean you need to buy all the food off the shelves, but simply to gather “common-sense things.”
Masters said it’s a good idea to have needed things “just in case. … Don’t wait until it’s (coronavirus) in Ohio. … Start thinking about it now.”
If you’re a parent, teach your child good hygiene habits like washing their hands and covering their nose and mouth when they sneeze. And keep them home when they’re sick.
Face masks are only recommended for people who are already sick, healthy people caring for someone who is sick, and health care workers. “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” the U.S. Surgeon General’s account tweeted last Saturday.
As the general public buys masks, it means fewer are available for health care workers. In addition, the U.S. Surgeon General’s account also pointed out that poorly fitted masks can do more harm than good.
The new coronavirus is spreading around the world, and data indicates it has a higher mortality rate than influenza.
“I think we ought to be concerned about it,” Martin said.
At the same time, he noted there have already been thousands of flu deaths this season in the United States.
“Every year we live with a disease that kills tens of thousands of people in our country,” he said.
And he said there is a flu shot, but not many people actually get it — leading him to wonder, if a coronavirus vaccine did exist, how many people would seek it out.
Masters said Hancock Public Health has fielded questions from organizations on how to protect employees, and has heard from a few people wanting to know if they could be tested. He said the health department is sending updated information to medical providers regularly.
Masters encouraged people, as they seek out information, to pay attention to “reliable news sources” and to listen to science, not sensationalizing.
The Ohio Department of Health has information on preparedness and prevention on its coronavirus website at https://coronavirus.ohio.gov/
“Please stay calm and prepare, seek out accurate information, and be kind, staying mindful of actions that could perpetuate any discrimination or stigma associated with COVID-19 or other infectious diseases,” the website states. (COVID-19 is the World Health Organization’s official name for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.)
The state has also opened a call center for Ohioans to get their coronavirus questions answered. It’s 1-833-4-ASK-ODH (1-833-427-5634) and is available from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call center staff includes licensed nurses and infectious disease experts, according to a press release.