Healthcare providers and citizens alike are navigating uncharted territories when it comes to the novel coronavirus/COVID-19.
“It’s an important part of the discussion to recognize that we’re talking about a virus and a disease that we really didn’t know existed 3 months ago,” said Jay C. Butler, MD, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a webinar.
Populations Most at Risk
Butler explained that most younger, healthier people with no other health problems who contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms and not need to be hospitalized. However, elderly individuals are most at risk.
“For most people, we’re talking about a minor illness,” Butler said. “The people at highest risk of severe infection are those who are older, particularly those who are over 80. More than half of the deaths we’ve seen in the United States are people who live in long-term care facilities.”
Butler also said that people with chronic heart, lung, or kidney disease or diabetes are at an increased risk for more severe infections, too.
“For families, what that means is that it’s important to practice social distancing for our elderly and for people with underlying health conditions.”
Preventing the Spread of COVID-19
There are measures that both providers – including oncologists and oncology nurses – and citizens can take to help prevent the spread of the disease.
Butler said that it seems like the majority of infections are transmitted via respiratory droplets that are transmitted when infected individuals cough or sneeze. So, it is crucial that people cough or sneeze into their elbow, and that everyone washes their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water (or hand sanitizer if soap and water is not available), and frequently clean and disinfect surfaces – particularly those that are touched a lot.
Citizens may be tempted to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks (including N-95s, which were recently made available to healthcare providers
), and gowns, but Butler advised against that, saving these items for healthcare providers who are most likely to come in contact with the virus and need to be protected.
“It’s important to acknowledge the heroic job the healthcare providers have been doing,” Butler said. “Many hospitals have done table-top clinics on what to do in a flu pandemic. These plans are really important.”
Butler also recommended that providers push back elective surgeries and procedures, as well as nonessential visits.
“This is how we keep the healthcare system robust and take care of the people who get sick with COVID-19.”
Finding a Vaccine and Next Steps
Right now, treatment for the coronavirus is mainly getting a hold on symptoms. A vaccine is in the works, but is still a long way away, according to Butler, who said that a vaccine has just started trials in a human population.
“A vaccine will ultimately be the best way to protect the entire population against the coronavirus,” he said. “Unfortunately, this will probably be a year, to a year and a half out.”
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