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County Public Health Division Column: Responsibly prepare for COVID-19; but there's no need to panic

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The news seems to get more serious with each passing day. Both the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in the United States and the number of deaths caused by it increase almost daily. Also increasing are reports of stores running out of basic items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and household cleaners as people rush to stock up and prepare for a possible outbreak.

So the question is: where’s the appropriate line between responsible preparation and overblown panic?

It’s important to use factual information and reputable sources when planning for how best to stay healthy for yourself, loved ones, and community. Here are some facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Minnesota Department of Health:

For most of the American public unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.

From the current science, the majority (80%) of people who contract this virus suffer only minor symptoms.

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It’s always good to take steps to protect yourself and your family. And being prepared is never a bad thing. This is especially true when the best ways to protect yourself are the same behaviors for protecting yourself from influenza, and the best ways to prepare also happen to be similar to how you would prepare for a snowstorm or any other event that might keep you at home for a short time.

What can you do to protect yourself and those around you?

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds. If you’re using hand sanitizer, make sure it’s alcohol-based and that your hands are not visibly dirty.

Stay home when you are sick. This is key to stopping the spread and protecting coworkers, classmates, and anyone else you may encounter.

Cover your cough or sneeze. Use a tissue if you have one and then dispose of it in a covered container. Or use your elbow to block germs from getting into the air or onto your hands.

Clean frequently touched surfaces such as countertops, light switches, doorknobs, and cabinet handles often using a regular household detergent and water.

And how can you prepare responsibly? Imagine if you or a family member has to stay home for a few days or up to two weeks. Do you have a back-up plan for child care or the ability to work from home? Talk with your employer about options. Think about the necessities you would need. For instance, if you take prescription medications, would you need refills? Stock up on nonperishable food items. Think about your network of family and friends. Who could you call upon if you need help? And who could you help if they need errands run?

St. Louis County Public Health, like all county public health divisions, is working closely with the Minnesota Department of Health on this situation, just as we do for any public health threat. Should there be a confirmed case locally, our role would be to ensure the essential needs are met for anyone placed in quarantine or isolation and that there is appropriate and timely public education. We are working with area businesses and agencies to have plans in place should someone need groceries or medications delivered while quarantined at home.

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We understand why people worry. This is a new virus, and there is no vaccine at this point that can prevent it. People who are elderly or have compromised immune systems seem to be most at risk. We all need to do our part in protecting our most vulnerable community members as well as ourselves, loved ones, and neighbors.

Perspective is important, too. Based on what is known about COVID-19 and its spread, The Minnesota Department of Health is not currently recommending canceling community events such as concerts, parties, or church gatherings. And the Centers for Disease Control is not recommending the use of facemasks as a preventive measure for the general public.

Making plans to protect yourself is always a good idea. A dose of common sense and basing preparations on facts are equally important.

Amy Westbrook is director of St. Louis County’s Public Health Division. And Scott Lesnau is the emergency preparedness coordinator for St. Louis County Public Health.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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