WE HAVEN’T DONE MUCH planning yet for how best to produce a newspaper during a quarantine. But as of Tuesday, March 10, there were no positive test results from Columbia County for the coronavirus exposure. Should we bother to prepare?
We already function like a semi-quarantined business. We gather news by phone and digital contacts as well as face-to-face; stories are written wherever reporters choose. There’s no bustling newsroom. No roaring printing press either.
As for how an epidemic would affect us, a local doctor said last week, “that epidemic is already here.” It’s the flu, and nationwide the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that from last November to the end of February 2020 the flu virus caused as many as 52,000 deaths in the U.S. and up to 49 million illnesses.
We take for granted that the flu lurks throughout the winter. But there’s a flu vaccine and it’s still possible this late in the season to get a flu shot. It’s no guarantee you won’t get sick from influenza in its various nasty forms, but it might mean you’ll get a milder case.
Coronavirus hasn’t shared its schedule with us yet. Maybe it will recede as the weather warms. But if you want to make a bet, it’s a sure thing that it will show up here and cause an illness called COVID-19 (“coronavirus disease-2019”).
The City of New Rochelle in Westchester County, close to New York City, has a cluster of cases of COVID-19 and of people who have been exposed to the virus but are not showing symptoms. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who declared a state of emergency statewide last week, this week established a “containment” area in New Rochelle and closed the schools and other public buildings in that zone for two weeks. People infected with the virus can remain contagious for almost that long.
The state, which has shown reassuring leadership during this threat, also arranged for an automated testing system to be set up in the containment zone so that large numbers of people can quickly be tested for exposure to the virus. That could make a huge improvement in understanding how the coronavirus functions and how to limit exposure to it.
If New Rochelle is too far away to worry about, consider the two individuals in Saratoga who have tested positive for the virus and another positive test in Ulster County. Coronavirus is also in western Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut.
We don’t know about other areas because the testing until now has been limited by too few test kits and labs to process the tests. This country is not responsible for COVID-19; that distinction belongs to China. The Trump administration is responsible for our nation’s lack of preparedness, but that’s a discussion we need to have in the aftermath of this epidemic.
The task now is for all of us to do what we can to break what mathematicians call the curve of transmission. It’s still trending upward—more cases at a rate larger than expected. This gives weight to the plea to wash your hands thoroughly. It’s not some silly distraction. Soap and water can wash away the virus. Having clean hands reduces the chances that you’ll get the virus (if you don’t touch your face, and best of luck with that). Strong hand sanitizer is crucial too.
And if you don’t have the virus on your hands and you cover you mouth with your sleeve or a tissue when you sneeze, you may deprive the virus of a new host. It’s polite now to refuse a handshake. Respond with a nod, a bump, a smile or a bow. This too can disrupt transmission of the virus. That’s the goal.
These actions are necessary adjustments to the way we live. But we need plans too. We need plans to help people who don’t get tested because they can’t afford the procedure. We need ways for parents to pay for childcare if schools are closed and parents get no paid time off. We need plans for all kids to have the digital tools they need for distance learning.
Most people exposed to the coronavirus don’t have a serious COVID-19 illness; some have no symptoms at all. Those in their 70s and older who have other health problems are the most at risk, but everyone must take care.
This outbreak will test our willingness to assist our neighbors in need. We need to know how best to prevent its spread. But we need to start by disrupting the transmission now. Wash your hands.