As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia and in Athens-Clarke County rises, here are some tips on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Athens and your community.
The Red & Black talked with Mark Ebell, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia, about social distancing, preparedness and how not to panic.
The Red & Black: How should college students and the public in general prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Mark Ebell: I think there’s a, you know, the CDC has given a lot of good advice and the World Health Organization. Viruses like this, the best way to prevent them from spreading is to reduce the number of people that an infected person infects. So if you’re walking around and you maybe have a mild case of COVID-19, and you’re feeling good enough to go around and maybe go to the bar, unfortunately, the more people you contact, the more people you spread it to, and then they can go home and spread to somebody to who’s really at risk.
What we worry about a lot is with younger people and students, who feel pretty good, getting together, going to bars, going to restaurants, mingling, mixing, and then when they get infected, they may not be at much risk themselves, but they go home, and then they, or they interact with people at their place of work or their family or grandparents, and those people are at much higher risk. Anybody who’s 60 and older, anybody with any chronic lung or heart disease is at very high risk of dying of this infection.
We really need to emphasize … social distancing, and that means three to six feet away not touching. It means washing hands because washing hands well for 20 seconds can eliminate the virus from your hands. Also, it does not help for people who are healthy to wear a mask.
R&B: How contagious is it? How does it spread?
ME: It can be caught by someone coughing near you, but it can also be on surfaces. So if … somebody that has COVID-19 goes into a bar and touches the counter of the bar or a bar stool or, you know, a chair, then that virus can be there a day later. Somebody else can come in, touch it, touch their hand to their mouth or nose, and get the infection. It’s really important that we, you know, for the foreseeable future, we try to stay as isolated as possible from each other.
R&B: How do you avoid panic in this sort of situation?
ME: Panic isn’t helpful because panic makes you do stupid things. Ignoring it isn’t helpful because it makes you do stupid things. Saturday night, I was pretty appalled to ... drive by Creature Comforts and see that it was packed. There’s a pretty good chance someone in that bar had COVID-19, certainly not impossible. They could’ve spread it to several other people who then spread it to several other people.
We have had confirmed cases in Athens and, you know, I don’t think everyone is taking it as seriously as they should. You have to be prepared. If somebody has a chronic illness you want to make sure you have at least a month’s supply of medications. When you do go out in public, you try to do it in smaller groups and you are very conscientious about hand washing, using hand sanitizer, and trying to avoid touching your face and mouth.
R&B: Is there a level of preparedness that people should take? Should people go to grocery stores and stock up?
ME: No, I mean the food supply is intact. I don’t think there is any reason to hoard or stockpile food. If you do go out to the grocery store, be thoughtful about when you touch surfaces or when you’re handling things. Wash your hands before and after. I don’t think stockpiling food is gonna be helpful because it just leads to panic and that’s not what we need right now.
We need to pull together as a community, realize we all have a role to play in terms of doing the social distancing thing, being inconvenienced for awhile. For a few weeks or maybe even longer we are going to be inconvenienced, but we are doing that to protect the vulnerable and the elderly in our society and those with chronic conditions in particular.
R&B: How is COVID-19 different from other flu strains?
ME: COVID-19 isn’t the flu, it’s not a strain of the flu, it’s a completely different virus. It’s from a family of viruses called coronaviruses. Some types of coronavirus cause a relatively mild infection and are what we call endemic — that means they’re around us all the time and have been here for many years. There are several new strains of coronavirus that cause a much more serious illness and can be fatal. The SARS epidemic that happened about 10 years ago, the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, or MERS, that happened a few years ago both had very high case fatality rates. When we talk about a case fatality rate, that’s the percentage of people who get the infection who die. It’s 20 or 30 times more dangerous than the regular influenza.