In the last few days, there have been a number of shifts in the current COVID-19 outbreak that have put the world on even greater alert and made the declaration of a pandemic almost inevitable. At the time I write this, there have been more than 80,000 cases confirmed across the globe (pdf). Brazil has confirmed its first coronavirus case (imported from Italy); Italy has 400 cases (and 12 deaths); while Iran has 100 plus cases (and 19 deaths). It is still important to note that the majority of the infected cases are from mainland China (in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province, where the outbreak originated), but it is clear that infected cases are spreading across the world.
The United States has been tracking this outbreak closely, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently discussed the likelihood of not just more cases in the U.S., but also the potential to significantly disrupt society. A large-scale disease outbreak can be highly disruptive, as we’ve already seen in other impacted countries. The CDC’s message served as a sober reminder that if this outbreak persists, our ability to maintain our way of life—going to work and church, traveling via public transportation, frequenting the grocery store—could be altered by public health measures necessary to contain further spread of COVID-19.
But let’s look at the full picture for a minute. There’s a lot more happening in the country than the potential for this outbreak. Many major communities are still recovering from the major disasters we’ve seen in prior years, and we are in the midst of one of the worst flu seasons we have seen in years. The current flu season is showing high activity in almost every state. To date, the CDC has reported more than 29 million reported cases, leading to 280,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths (105 in children). There are a serious set of public health challenges facing the world right now, and the opportunity for our communities to prepare is now.
Preparedness is always difficult at the individual level—the idea of stocking up on a bunch of supplies and investing in things you might need if a disaster strikes can be difficult to prioritize in the midst of other realities. This is true for hurricanes and other natural disasters, but especially true for disease outbreaks.
This burden is even greater in marginalized communities—for both preparedness and dealing with the impacts of a crisis. The burden to invest money in preparing one’s household, facing the realities of property loss, or even dealing with the struggles faced with lost income from days without work can be enough to strain anyone.
The flu season has been enough to strain communities. With vaccine hesitancy at an all-time high and many communities of color still skeptical about the benefits of a flu vaccine, there is already risk of serious illness from an active flu season (especially for unvaccinated groups). The COVID-19 outbreak compiles the risk, especially with fatality rates that appear to be worse in patients with chronic diseases or co-morbidities. There is still so much to learn about the virus, and new information (and guidance) will be shared from public health experts as the outbreak unfolds. This is a difficult public health communication challenge—sharing new information without causing doubt or panic—which can be a harder message to deliver in marginalized communities.
Right now, there are no available vaccines to take to prevent COVID-19 infection, however there are things that can be done to begin to prepare your families and communities. First, panic is never a good crisis strategy. Talk to your loved ones about their plans to protect themselves (and their communities) in the case of an outbreak, and talk about how you can support one another. Plan and prepare together.
Second, rely on information from public health experts only. There is a lot of misinformation that has been spread about the novel coronavirus, some of which can be harmful. Only follow credible sources of information—this is especially important as we learn more about the virus and new guidance is shared.
Third, while our healthcare system is not perfect, is it robust enough to support patients during crises like these. Communicate with your physician, pharmacist, or another healthcare provider should you have concerns (or symptoms). They are prepared to support you.
Finally, practice standard public health protection methods to prevent transmission. Those practices are still the best protection. Hand-washing, avoiding excessive contact with your face, and safely practicing social distancing if you are feeling ill are still the best ways to prevent disease transmission.
This is a rapidly evolving situation. As the outbreak continues, preventing further outbreak will require all hands on deck to protect our communities.
Dr. Nicolette Louissaint serves as the executive director of Healthcare Ready, where she leads organizational initiatives to meet the most pressing patient needs before, during and after natural disasters, disease outbreaks and catastrophic events. Prior to joining Healthcare Ready, Nicolette was the senior adviser to the State Department’s Special Coordinator for Ebola during the height of the Ebola Epidemic of 2014. Follow her on Twitter.