By Scott J. Becker, CEO, APHL
I’m a dad to two girls – one in high school and one in college – both of whom are home as their schools respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. They asked me to share some info with their friends and I thought it would be helpful for other kids wondering about the same things.
I wanted to provide a little reality check for all of you who are now experiencing this major disruption to your lives. Yeah, it sucks. No way around that. I want to try to help by providing you with some context and terminology so you can make good decisions and full understand what’s happening right now.
What is COVID-19? It’s the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, which is the official name of this new coronavirus. (Virologists worldwide would be furious if I didn’t mention that!) I’ll refer to it as COVID-19, much easier to say (use #COVID19).
First off, this week the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva announced that COVID-19 is officially a pandemic and that there are over 118,000 cases worldwide. A pandemic is simply the global (multiple regions of the world) spread of a new disease that is easy to pass from person to person in an efficient and sustained way. Nothing new there, right? We’ve seen this disease spread over the last few months, first in Asia and then in other spots around the world such as Italy, Iran, Seattle, etc. An epidemic, on the other hand, is the spread of a disease within a specific community. Think of a measles or mumps outbreak on a college campus, or a foodborne outbreak associated with contaminated sprouts (just don’t eat sprouts, they are notorious for making people sick). You have also heard about the transmission on cruise ships. I think of cruise ships as “floating petri dishes” on a good day. In this instance, having thousands of people on cruise ships at the outset of an epidemic or pandemic was also a pretty efficient mechanism to further circulate the virus.
So what can you do? First, recognize that this situation is serious. We have had very few pandemics in the past 100 years! Also remember that our healthcare and public health systems are much better than they were way back then. We will get through this.
What are we trying to do now? Put simply, we are trying to use important public health tactics to flatten the epidemic curve for COVID-19. The “epi curve” is what we see as case counts go up and then eventually come down. We are trying to buy ourselves time to reduce the curve of illness. Another way to say it is that we are trying to break the chain of transmission.
There are many ways to help yourself and your community (friends, family, especially older people). I was embedded with CDC earlier this week, I have worked closely with my colleagues there throughout this outbreak just as I have for my entire career. The site I linked to above (here it is again) is accurate and extremely helpful. Please, please, please read it.
Handwashing is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your family from getting sick. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (scrub for 20 seconds!), especially after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. In my experience, soap and water are easier to find right now than hand sanitizer and it works better anyway.
Please clean your cell phone. Really. That’s another place where viruses love to hang out.
Stop touching your face. Much harder to do than it sounds.
Social distancing – yeah, this might mean that you won’t be going to concerts and other events for a while. Good thing you all are so good at staying connected over social media, etc. Remember, this isn’t only about you – it’s about everyone. You don’t want to be the vector that infects a whole bunch of vulnerable people! That’s why many nursing homes around the nation aren’t allowing in any visitors.
Okay, so it feels like it really sucks to be you right now. Major disruption in your lives, online classes (hopefully that will work out okay), no large gatherings, etc. In reality, it sucks to be all of us right now. This is why public health matters – it’s the health of the public, all of us, that really matters. And here it comes: we’re all in this together. This too shall pass. My wife and I have known many of you since you were little. You are all resilient. You will learn from this and come out stronger on the other side. And maybe some of you will go into the public health field (at least think about it)!
Stay well and stop touching your face. Now go wash your hands.