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Coronavirus is no reason to panic, but institutions need to prepare

The spread of the coronavirus disease, called COVID-19, poses a serious public health threat, yet one of the challenges we face as citizens is how to keep it in perspective.

Members of two Buffalo-area families are in isolation while being tested for the virus. Erie County’s Health Department said the families recently returned from northern Italy.

There have been two confirmed cases of the virus in New York State: A 39-year-old female health care worker who recently traveled to Iran is being isolated in her Manhattan home; and a male resident of Westchester County who had not traveled abroad recently was diagnosed early Tuesday.

The disease has killed some 3,000 people, most of them in China, where it originated. Public officials at the federal, state and county levels are taking appropriate steps to raise awareness of virus and anticipate its spreading.

For members of the public, now is a time to prepare, not panic.

COVID-19 comes with a paradox. Its fatality rate of around 2% is substantially lower than that of other headline-making outbreaks. Ebola has had a fatality rate of between 25% and 90%; SARS is about 10%. (Seasonal flu kills about 0.1% of those who become infected.)

However, one consequence of the low death rate for COVID-19 puts public health experts on edge. Most people who catch the virus will live; many will suffer little or no effect from it, which means thousands of people will unknowingly spread it to others.

County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, in a phone interview this week, stressed that Western New York is a community with strong social networks. “If we stay calm and work together, and be smart about listening to public health recommendations, we will come through this,” she said.

Burstein advises practicing good hygiene, such as frequent hand-washing, and keeping healthy people away from people who are sick.

And there is no reason for well people to buy a face mask for protection, Burstein says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend them, yet panic buying and price gouging are causing a shortage that threatens to leave health workers and sick people with an insufficient supply.

Dealing with ‘social distancing’

Late Monday night, the state Legislature passed a resolution allocating $40 million to fight coronavirus. The bill also gives Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo broad new powers during times of emergency, including the right to suspend laws and local ordinances.

County, state and federal officials are making plans to deal with the virus, as well as hospitals and other health care providers.

Just as important, other institutions in the private sector need to make provisions for “social distancing,” when people need to be kept away from each other.

After an outbreak of COVID-19, individuals will need to be quarantined. Burstein said the incubation period is typically two weeks, and officials would want patients to go through three cycles before being cleared, meaning six weeks.

That would cause considerable disruption at schools and workplaces, many of which would have to adopt long-distance learning and telecommuting. For some, that will be easy, but others will face challenges.

Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, told a Buffalo News reporter the virus “is very much on the front burner” for school districts across the state.

In addition to new cleaning practices, schools will need to plan for the possibility of online learning if the school buildings are shut down. That is no simple task, particularly when accounting for special education classes, for students who have no computers or internet connection at home, or those who rely on subsidized meals they receive at school.

Having schoolchildren at home for an extended period would also wreak havoc with working parents or other caretakers. Many businesses have the ability to let employees work from home, but that doesn’t work for many blue-collar jobs, hospitality positions or countless other professions.

Community services for senior citizens would also be impacted. Burstein pointed out that many seniors depend on community centers for meals and for socializing, which is good for their well-being.

There is a lot to plan for, in the face of deadlines that are urgent but still unknown.

Beware of misinformation

The threat of a public health crisis gives purveyors of fake facts and other misinformation the chance to mislead others on social media.

Burstein says this is one of her greatest frustrations as a public health official. If you heard last month that someone in Erie County came down with COVID-19, that rumor was false. You read on Twitter that the virus was created in a lab in China? Not true.

In addition to reading reliable news sources, Burstein recommends checking the websites of the county and state health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

“Everything I say today may be out of date tomorrow,” Burstein said. “These websites have the latest.”

Best hygiene practices

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein’s advice on best practices for avoiding exposure to viruses:

  • Wash your hands frequently, with soap and warm water, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds, then dry hands with a towel.
  • Resist the urge to touch your hands to your face, a subconscious habit that is hard to break.
  • Cough or sneeze into an elbow or a tissue, then dispose of the tissue.
  • Clean tabletops, utensils, dishes, cellphones and anywhere viruses can linger.
  • Stay away from people who are sick. If you are sick, stay home from work or school.

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