As I stand in line at a Tampa Lowe’s today in the middle of a global pandemic, I cannot help but note the vast differences in people’s behavior around me. There is a complete dichotomy in the ways in which individuals are responding to COVID-19. Some customers who err on the side of safety are sitting in their cars waiting for curbside pickup. Others are carefully social distancing as they walk around the store, buying cleaning supplies and paper towels. Some may have lost a friend or family member to the virus. Conversely, some people are not taking any precautions. They are completely oblivious to those around them, bumping their carts full of lumber into others as they cough. About half are wearing masks.
I am in the first group. As a physician, hand washing, infection control, and universal precautions have been deeply ingrained in me. I still remember being an intern twenty years ago and getting berated by an intimidating, older surgeon for “almost” breaking his sterile field. Although frustrating at the time, this was a lesson I can never forget.
Witnessing the variance in behaviors regarding this pandemic reminds me of the two schools of thought when it comes to hurricane preparedness. There is a group of people that buy water, batteries, and canned goods on June 1st. They have generators and shutters. Some even have an evacuation plan. Maybe they have lived through a devastating storm, or maybe they are just being careful. Then there is the other subset of people that boldly proclaim that they are not buying supplies unless the hurricane is coming as a category 4 within the next 48 hours. I became acutely aware of these differing views after moving to Florida from Ohio. In fact, I remember standing at this very Lowe’s a couple of years ago as the threat of Irma approached and being completely baffled that some people were buying five cases of water while some others were just coming in for pool supplies.
So, are the people who prepare for hurricanes the ones that are social distancing? Are the people refraining from masking the ones who resist evacuation? Much like a hurricane, this virus is predictably unpredictable. We will not know its toll on humanity until it is over. As physicians, we must continue to educate and advocate for preparedness just as meteorologists do before a hurricane, and despite our best efforts, some people will choose not to heed our advice and ride out the storm.
Sarah C. Smith is a family physician.
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