OWATONNA – Over the weekend, national news outlets began reporting chaotic attempts of people trying to prepare for an upcoming coronavirus outbreak, sharing photos of hour-long lines at grocery store checkouts and supplies such as bottled water being completely bought out at big bulk stores.
While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that it’s not if, but when the coronavirus will become widespread. As of March 2, there have been 88 confirmed cases of the coronavirus – or COVID-19 infection – across 10 states. Recent cases from California and Washington state are concerning because some of these patients have not had contact with other patients at high risk for contracting COVID-19. One regional doctor stated that this could be the result of patients being completely unaware that they are sick, making it more likely that the number of cases will continue to spread.
“Steele County, just like the rest of the U.S., could be vulnerable as this virus spreads,” said Dr. Deepi Goyal, the regional chair of clinical practice for Mayo Clinic Health System in southeast Minnesota. “We already know that many patients that are infected don’t get very sick, and that it can take five to 14 days for people to show symptoms. That means that people could be infectious and spread the virus without knowing they’re infected.”
Goyal said that while influenza poses a significant risk every year as the circulating virus varies, creating years with particularly dangerous strains such as H1N1 in 2009, what is different about coronavirus is that it’s “novel.”
“[That] means that there’s a lot we still don’t know about it, such as how it’s spread and how ill it makes people,” Goyal explained. “People haven’t been exposed to it before. In addition, unlike influenza, there’s currently no existing vaccine and we still don’t know if there are medications that decrease the severity of illness.”
According to Goyal, SARS and MERS were also caused by coronaviruses, but because they made many more patients very ill, infected patients were more identifiable and it was easier to contain because it wasn’t transmitted in the community as readily. One correlation that some people may pick out between COVID-19 and SARS is the popularity of face masks, but Goyal pointed out that this time around they might be being used inappropriately.
“The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19,” Goyal stated. “You should only wear a mask if a health care professional recommends it.”
Goyal further explained that a facemask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms in order to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of facemasks also is crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings, such as at home or in a health care facility. Goyal added that due to limited supplies of masks and other protective equipment, every mask that’s used by someone who doesn’t need it leaves on less for someone who could use that mask to protect themselves or others.
“The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus and to use common sense prevention,” said Goyal in reference to how local residents can best prepare and prevent getting infected. “Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.”
Goyal said that it is also important to avoid touching your face, to cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, to frequently clean and disinfect touched objects and surfaces, and to stay home when feeling ill.
If you do get ill and head in to see a doctor, don’t be surprised if you are questioned about where you have traveled in the last couple of weeks.
“With the Ebola outbreak a few years ago, Mayo Clinic started routinely asking patients about things such as their travel history and other potential infections contacts,” Goyal explained. “While the risk of Ebola has been contained, these procedures have remained in place, making it far easier to implement for other infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. We have been running drills to ensure that staff know what to do if a patient screens positive.”
While the risk of coronavirus spreading is real, Goyal assures that influenza is still a bigger threat both locally and nationwide as we continue into flu season. He said that influenza is still more widespread, but that the silver lining is people can kill two birds with one stone while they avoid catching either illness.
“As the situation evolves both nationally and internationally we’ll learn more [about COVID-19], including how widely it may spread, how ill patients will get, and if and how patients develop immunity to it,” Goyal said. “The good news is that the same common-sense measure we use to curb the spread of influenza will help decrease transmission of this virus.”