What an infectious disease doctor wants you to understand about the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic

by Chris Horne, The Devil Strip

The last time you went to the emergency room, you probably waited longer than you would have liked, especially if you or a loved one needed to be moved to a hospital room. That’s the norm during the average cold and flu season. 

Now add the pressure for hospitals to treat an additional 100,000 Ohioans currently suspected by officials of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, a respiratory illness that threatens the lives of people with weakened immune systems.

That’s how the spread of this virus can endanger the lives of many more people than just those directly infected by it. 

“What a lot of Americans don’t seem to recognize yet are the implications to society,” says Dr. Jenell Stewart, an infectious disease physician and scientist with a public health background. “If you are under 60 and in good health, you are not likely at great risk, but it’s not about you. This is about everyone else.” (Note: Dr. Stewart is a friend who I met at Stanford University during the JSK Journalism Fellowship.) 

“I worked in a humanitarian health crisis in Kenya and had to make decisions about who gets oxygen and who doesn’t. That is an awful, awful situation I wouldn’t wish on any hospital staff anywhere, and especially not on any patients, but that is where we are headed in the United States if we don’t slow the spread of this virus.”

– Dr. Jenell Stewart, infectious disease physician + scientist

Under normal circumstances, according to ProPublica’s ER Inspector project, the emergency departments at Akron General and Summa Health each see upwards of 60,000 patients a year and average more than two hours wait before those patients are sent home, more than five hours to be admitted to the hospital and more than seven hours to be taken to a room. 

“This is the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and what each of us does matters,” Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Dept. of Health, said in a Sunday briefing. 

Gov. Mike DeWine, who ordered Ohio’s bars and restaurants to close indefinitely because of the health crisis, said, “It’s a matter of life and death for me to make these decisions.”

Dr. Jenell Stewart

If the virus overwhelms our healthcare systems, Stewart says it not only threatens the lives of individuals at high risk of getting sick from SARS-CoV-2, which includes older adults, patients receiving chemo treatments, those managing lung disease, diabetes and heart disease, but it also further jeopardizes anyone with a life-threatening condition, like a stroke, heart attack or injuries from a car accident, who needs emergency care and the resources otherwise consumed by treating COVID-19. 

“I worked in a humanitarian health crisis in Kenya and had to make decisions about who gets oxygen and who doesn’t. That is an awful, awful situation I wouldn’t wish on any hospital staff anywhere, and especially not on any patients, but that is where we are headed in the United States if we don’t slow the spread of this virus,” Stewart says. 

CDC: WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE AT A HIGHER RISK

It’s important to avoid bars, restaurants and large gatherings because the virus can be spread by people who aren’t experiencing symptoms. In fact, you can pick up SARS-CoV-2 from surfaces in public, either carrying it to other surfaces and people or infecting yourself when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. 

“If you must go out in public, just assume that everything is covered in coronavirus — the grocery cart, the ATM, everything,” Stewart says, “and wash your hands accordingly.” 

It’s like glitter, she says. Imagine going to a costume party where someone else is wearing a lot of glitter. By the end of the night, you somehow find glitter all over you, even if you didn’t hang out with that person. If everyone had stayed four feet apart, didn’t touch anything and washed their hands properly, you might get home free of glitter.

There are still things you can do while practicing social distancing. Stewart encourages people who are not exhibiting symptoms to help their high risk neighbors and friends —  just take precautions for their sake. 

Your elderly neighbor may need groceries, medicine or other goods. Have them text or email you their list of needs. Then, leave the bags on their doorstep or porch. Avoid the temptation to visit in person, but do check in by phone or video because staying connected is important.

OHIO DEPT. OF HEALTH: COPING WITH COVID-19 ANXIETY

COVID-19 CHECKLIST: HELPING THE ISOLATED & QUARANTINED

With schools out for the next three weeks, some people who usually rely on grandparents for childcare will need other options. You can babysit, as long as no one has symptoms and you take precautions: maintain four feet of distance; wash your hands thoroughly or use hand sanitizer; disinfect surfaces; and don’t touch your face.

Of course, you can and should still get out of the house to walk, run, bike and hike.


To learn more about the COVID-19 outbreak, you can check these local, state and national sources for reliable information:

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