Coronavirus can be controlled, but we must embrace sacrifice

In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, a friend of mine relayed a troubling story to me recently.

My friend is a dermatologist who is 9-months pregnant, living and working in a county with no known community spread of the novel coronavirus. After spending time examining a 19-year-old with acne, the patient told her that she was under self-quarantine due to exposure to the coronavirus in New York. Her college in New York had been closed for the semester, so she returned to her home state and county, where her acne prompted her to present to my friend’s clinic.

This is an example of a situation that explains why extreme measures are necessary to combat the virus. Here we have a case of a young adult who was asked to self-quarantine and was turned away from her college to prevent the spread of the disease. She then traveled to a county unaffected by community spread and presented to an outpatient dermatology for an acne treatment where she was examined by an obviously pregnant doctor. Could there be a stronger example of selfishness in a time of crisis? The fact that everyone will probably be okay doesn’t matter.

In another example of complete and utter cluelessness, I saw a recent video taken at a major U.S. airport in which an ill-appearing food service worker was seen coughing at a cash register terminal without a mask on, and when a flight attendant asked if she had been checked for the virus, the employee said “no.”

As I type this, I see government officials on television standing in close proximity to each other, talking to a room where reporters have gathered, also standing less than 6 feet apart from each other.

The news media are reporting on unsubstantiated treatments, and I am seeing patient privacy being compromised on the Internet, in some cases by physicians and/or physician leaders. We have to get this under control.

Did we learn nothing from Ebola? Why did we wait until there were cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States before we stopped international travel? When testing becomes more freely available, we will find out that a lot more people are carrying the virus than is currently known. This will get worse.

Central to this issue is also a lack of support for public health programs. Government health departments, strapped for cash over many years, often can’t even afford to become accredited by the Public Health Accreditation Board, let alone respond to epidemic crises when they occur. We have been talking about health care reform for decades, yet very few strides have been made toward preventing disease. Public health workers, some of the most underpaid professionals in our society, simply can’t succeed without resources. It is no wonder that we are facing the current circumstances.

The last thing that I want to promote is panic. I feel that this outbreak is very controllable, but we have to embrace sacrifice. We need people to volunteer to forego their typical lifestyles to protect the vulnerable. We have spent the last decade or so focusing on ourselves. Let’s do the right thing and start behaving like we are sharing the planet. Wash your hands, avoid gathering in groups, and don’t hoard resources. Stopping the spread of coronavirus starts with the thoughtful actions of everyone.

Cory Michael is a radiologist.

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