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UTMC Infectious Disease Expert: What You Need to Know About Coronavirus

As schools close and anxiety soars about the spread of coronavirus across the U.S., an infectious disease expert at The University of Toledo Medical Center explains why it’s critical for families to follow safety measures.

“You need to be prepared for the fact that this is likely to get worse,” said Dr. Jennifer Hanrahan, associate professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at The University of Toledo Medical Center. “It’s not going to be business as usual for a while.”

Hanrahan

COVID-19, now a global pandemic, is different from the flu, and Hanrahan said people can make changes in their daily lives that will save thousands of Americans if they take the coronavirus seriously now at the beginning stages of the outbreak in our country.

The Ohio Department of Health said on March 12 it is likely that 1% of the state’s population currently has the virus and cases are expected to double every six days.

“It is true that influenza has killed more people in this country to date than coronavirus has, but we can expect that to change over the coming weeks and months,” Hanrahan said. “The death rate from coronavirus relative to the total number of infections far exceeds influenza.”

Though children aren’t developing severe cases of coronavirus, they are carriers. Hanrahan said closing schools is meant to stop them from spreading it to the most vulnerable populations.

“Most people — the vast majority of people — will do well with this if they contract coronavirus, but we have to remember, even the people who get mildly ill need to be very careful because they serve as reservoirs of virus for people who are at risk.”

She said 20% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 end up in intensive care units. Without a vaccine or a cure, it’s up to all citizens to protect themselves and those at high risk.

“People who are over age 60, and especially people over age 80, have a greatly increased risk of having severe illness requiring intensive care units and from dying from this disease,” Hanrahan said. “We have medication for influenza. We do not yet have medication for coronavirus. We have a vaccine for influenza, and we do not yet have a vaccine for coronavirus. And it will also take some time to develop a vaccine. This is different than H1N1 influenza, which happened in 2009 and SARS that happened in 2003.”

Hanrahan said people should practice social distancing as a successful infection-control strategy. That means staying six feet away from others.

“People cough or spit. When they’re talking or coughing or sneezing, if you’re standing within six feet of a person who is ill, you can potentially inhale those droplets and end up getting sick,” Hanrahan said. “You should stay away from large gatherings, or basically stay away from people at all if you’re really high risk.”

Other ways to protect yourself include:

• Stay home if you don’t need to go out, especially for those who are high risk;

• If mildly ill, stay home instead of going to the doctor;

• If experiencing serious symptoms with shortness of breath or chest pains, call your doctor;

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, especially in public;

• If coughing, cover your cough with a tissue or cough into your elbow;

• Wash your hands after using tissues for coughing;

• Frequently wash hands with soap and water or use a hand-hygiene product; and

• Stay away from people who are sick.

If you suspect you have coronavirus and experience severe symptoms, Hanrahan said to call your doctor’s office first.

“Don’t just go to your doctor’s office,” Hanrahan said. “Make sure that you call ahead and let them know that those are the symptoms you’re having. Get direction about what they would like you to do. Not all healthcare facilities are going to be prepared to be able to deal with the coronavirus.”

Also, she said tests are not yet available to everyone, and there’s a shortage of supplies that healthcare workers will need.

“For example, the solution that the viral swabs are transported in is on backorder,” Hanrahan said. “What that means practically is that there is a limit to the number of tests that we do, and we need to reserve those tests for people who are critically ill or people who have had direct contact with a case. If you’re mildly ill and have cold symptoms, it really is not likely that you’re going to be tested.”

Hanrahan also said to keep in mind doctors and nurses, themselves.

“It’s really important that we not overwhelm our healthcare systems because if we do that, we’re going to put a lot of people at risk,” Hanrahan said. “We put patients at risk, we put healthcare workers at risk. It causes a lot of problems. Look at what’s going on in Italy right now. They are having massive social disruption, and their healthcare workers are having to make terrible decisions about rationing healthcare.”

Hanrahan is often asked when life will return to normal.

“People keep asking how long this is going to last, whether it’s going to get better in the summer,” Hanrahan said. “The answer to that is that no one knows at this time. We do know what has happened in China. We can see what is happening in Europe. China took some pretty dramatic measures early on, and it looks like their level of infection has peaked and hopefully is starting to decrease. The number of new cases they’re reporting is going down as the number of new cases in Europe have gone up a great deal. Most of the new cases happening right now are in Europe.”

Instead of focusing on the numbers, Hanrahan said to focus on your family.

“It’s going to be really important that people take this seriously and that they do things to protect themselves,” Hanrahan said. “The thing to focus on is what you can do now for yourself and your family to help protect yourself.”

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