By ROB LAMBERTS, MD
Hello, and welcome to our new world! Sports has been cancelled, concerts have been cancelled, toilet paper is scarce, and don’t you dare cough in public! The new catch phrase is “social isolation,” which is difficult for many, but easy for some. At last, a crisis that favors the introvert!
Update on Current Situation
To date, there have been over 140,000 documented cases of the virus worldwide, and more than 1800 in the US. More than 5800 people have died, 41 of whom were in the US. Countries have shut down social gatherings, have limited travel, and the president has declared a state of emergency.
To date, there have been no cases in our local area, but I’m fairly certain the infection is everywhere, as it spreads easily from person-to-person and so containment is difficult. We have had suspicion of infection in our patient population, and are moving to get testing supplies so we can confirm or disprove the diagnosis.
The current public health goal is to decrease social contact to slow the spread of the virus. This is why the enormous sports industry has shut down, despite huge financial losses incurred by doing so. This is why conferences, concerts, and even family gatherings are being cancelled. This is why everyone is washing their hands frequently (and hoarding hand sanitizer).
I have no idea why people are hoarding toilet paper.
About the Virus (a review…you will be tested on this, so study it well!)
As a reminder, the COVID-19 virus causes a flu-like infection in people, with symptoms which include:
- runny nose
- sore throat
- difficulty breathing (in severe cases)
In other words, it looks and acts like a cold or maybe the flu in most cases. Most people who are infected do not get terribly sick, in fact most are basically asymptomatic.
The problem is that people with compromised bodies and/or immune systems are at much higher risk of severe disease and death than they are from influenza or other infections (current estimates are that COVID-19 is 10 to 20 times more deadly than the typical flu virus). Risk factors for severe disease include:
- Older age (65 is often the number given, but the older, the higher the risk)
- Lung disease (COPD, asthma)
Why has the World Gone Crazy Over This?
Some are saying that this is all a manufactured hype, fake news put out by people with an agenda (or a sick sense of humor). To those people I answer: no, no, no, no, no, no, no, and….NO! The situation is very serious. Here’s why:
Our healthcare system can handle (with varying success) the normal day-to-day influx of sickness and injury. With a pandemic, the system is flooded with people needing care, going far beyond what our system can handle. This has been the case in the countries ahead of us on the infection curve: ER’s are overwhelmed, hospitals are full, and the healthcare providers are pushed beyond what they can manage. This not only makes it so people with the virus can’t get care they need, but others needing the healthcare system no longer have access. In other words, people who have car accidents, get pneumonia, or have heart attacks are more likely to die with them because the system is strained beyond breaking.
In other words, this is a threat to all people.
Controlling the spread of the virus makes it so that the health needs of those sick with the virus are spread out over time. Furthermore, we don’t know the future action of the virus; it may go away in the summer months (as influenza does). Delaying the spread could save thousands, or tens of thousands of lives. This is not hype; it is fact.
Imagine you live in Florida and are in the path of a category 5 hurricane. You are told by authorities to prepare your homes and evacuate. Why do this when there is a chance the storm could veer off and not hit you? Because of the very high price you pay if it doesn’t. The best case is that the storm goes elsewhere and your preparations and evacuation turn out to be unnecessary. The worst case is to not prepare and suffer devastation.
For some reason, these issues are turned political. For many who downplay the potential risk, this is about a rogue press, a society of cowards, or a government wanting to seize power. While there clearly are problems in each of these areas, these factors miss the point: there is a category 5 hurricane bearing down on us.
So let’s drop the politics in this issue. This is about public safety and being responsible humans. If this all turns out to be an over-reaction, let’s celebrate, saying a prayer of thanks instead of claiming that the reaction was unnecessary.