SALT LAKE CITY — The numbers are changing faster than a reporter can type them, but as of Tuesday morning, 91,916 people had been sickened by the novel coronavirus in 71 countries. And 3,158 had died, including seven in Washington state.
Against a backdrop of hundreds of news stories and dozens of press conferences held daily across the country to discuss COVID-19, the deaths and getting ready, Americans can be forgiven for panicking a little at the prospect of a potential pandemic. And no, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not used the word pandemic yet to describe the outbreaks worldwide and the potential for many people to become infected as the virus moves from person to person in communities, including in the United States.
But health officials and others warn that, as often happens in a mass event, some people are ignoring warnings and limiting their ability to be prepared should an outbreak occur in their community. And others may not be relying on the most reliable information or doing what experts say actually helps.
“I suspect most people are taking a very measured approach and talking to their employers, family, neighbors and friends. What does it mean if we need to quarantine? How do we do this?” said Joseph Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
But there will be folks who are excessively stressed and making bad preparation choices — or are not preparing at all.
Here are ways you may be panicking wrong and what to do.
Spread of infection is not a natural disaster.
You don’t prepare the same as you would for an earthquake or a tornado. You won’t be at home for two weeks, isolated without resources, so you don’t need water, batteries or candles, says Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department.
“Utilities will function fine. Electricity, potable water, natural gas, you’ll have all that. So set those aside and focus on the things that are really applicable in this circumstance, things you might need because you shouldn’t leave your home,” he said.
His list includes prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines to relieve symptoms of a respiratory illness, food and cleaning supplies. He points out that health officials don’t know what type of cleaner is best against coronavirus, but the hardy norovirus has been susceptible to bleach.
Hardcore “preppers,” those who try to be prepared for any emergency, have scoffed on Reddit at last-minute, panicked preparations, according to the MIT Technology Review. A comment moderator said those posts are being deleted fast because they serve no value to the community that actually tries to prepare. “Prepping is about PREparing (sic) for emergencies, not creating a supply shortage because you now suddenly need 3 boxes of N95 masks for your personal use (yes, I removed one of these today.)”
That a virus can spread widely from person to person in a community doesn’t say much about how sick people will get.
The CDC says about 80% of those who get sick will experience mild illness. At the other end, as many as 3% (estimates vary) could die. The toll will be far less if people do their part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In countries with widespread illness, the worst outcomes have been among those who are elderly and have chronic health conditions. China saw a lot of deaths among men who were 50 and older, especially those who’d smoked. They saw little illness among children. Will that be true everywhere? It’s not clear, but health officials say to pay attention to those with chronic diseases or who are elderly or immune suppressed. And they note that children need to avoid the illness as well — both for their sakes and because they might be able to transmit it.
Worrying about what experts don’t know about coronavirus may contribute to a feeling of helplessness.
“I would encourage people to pay attention to the science,” Dougherty said. “We have excellent doctors and researchers and epidemiologists working to understand this virus and its transmission. Those are going to be our best resources. Be skeptical of where you get your information.”
Dougherty and others say not to bother with unfamiliar websites or random Facebook posts and memes. Trusted government partners track what’s actually going on. “These people are working overtime to make sure the best information is out there.” Besides the CDC, he points to coronavirus.utah.gov, which leads to the Utah Department of Health and will be built out with more information over time.
The virus spread is not based on an individual’s race or ethnic background.
Background doesn’t make one more likely to be infected or to infect others. The thing that matters is exposure, so the first line of testing has been limited to those who had traveled to the location where the virus was first actively sickening people, Wuhan, China. Now the testing has expanded to include symptomatic people who have been exposed to someone who has the virus, regardless of where they might have gotten it.
Nothing about being Chinese or Asian makes someone more likely to have or spread coronavirus. An Idaho native of Scandinavian descent who was in a certain area of China or closely associates with someone who was there is more apt to be infected and infect others than a vendor in New York’s Chinatown who hasn’t traveled or been near someone who did.
A pneumonia shot will not protect you against COVID-19 even though the illness can result in pneumonia for some people.
Coronavirus is a virus. The pneumonia shot is for bacterial pneumonia, not viral pneumonia. That said, “We don’t have a lot of information about bacterial infections complicating COVID-19 yet, but some of the deaths are likely due to bacterial complications. With flu, many of these (deaths) are due to pneumococcus, the bacteria that the pneumonia shot protects against, so for a flu pandemic, the clear answer is yes. For this virus, the shot can’t hurt, it might help and you should get it anyway based on age and illness, but we don’t know yet,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health.
Being up to date on vaccines, including a pneumonia vaccine if you’re older, is important. Coronavirus seems to strike hardest those who have chronic medical conditions, the elderly and people who are immune compromised. So the pneumonia shot might help against a comorbid condition that could make it even harder to fight coronavirus, “something else that attacks your system that it has the ability to fight off,” said Risk.
In a similar vein, some folks are trying frantically to secure antibiotics and some preparedness websites say that’s a good idea. There are problems with that. First, antibiotics don’t treat viruses. They kill bacteria. And different antibiotics target specific bacteria.
Plus, in the face of increased antibiotic resistance, doctors are reluctant to prescribe antibiotics except against specific bacteria, and this is a virus. It’s unlikely anyone is prescribing them as a preventive measure, since it isn’t, several health experts told the Deseret News.
The thought that you really, really need a mask is bad.
And it can create a shortage for those who really, really do.
Masks are for those who are sick to help avoid infecting others and for their close caregivers.
Shoppers are buying lots of items in greater quantity than they need, from toilet paper to canned goods. Experts and others say to remember that other people are also trying to prepare. Media outlets like The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have been reporting on communities that are out of some preparation basics like hand sanitizer and cleaners. In Australia, they’ve even had a canned goods shortage.
There’s no vaccine but the idea that infection is inevitable is simply not true.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said people can protect themselves with the “kinds of things you would do to protect yourself against the flu”: washing hands, staying away from people who are coughing and sneezing, staying home if you’re sick and keeping your kids home if they’re sick.
People can take common sense measures to reduce their exposure and, should they become infected, they can help protect others.
Now’s a good time to talk to your doctor about how to put aside prescriptions you might need, because it may involve coordinating with health insurance companies and others. You might have to pay out of pocket. Risk and other experts say having medication for chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure could be important, but you shouldn’t panic. Think in advance about who would be able to pick up medicine for you or how to get a small cushion supply if you’re at the end of a prescription and get sick enough to self-quarantine. If you work through the details in advance, it won’t be a crisis.
Correction: The caption on a photo of Rich Rice incorrectly stated it was taken at Walmart. It was taken at Costco.