Opinion: Amid coronavirus outbreak, UC San Diego medical professor explains why ‘social distancing’ and staying home is essential

Avoiding contact with others has been determined to be one of the best courses of action to prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19.) Authorities have called on employers to allow those who can to telecommute and work from home.
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Against the novel coronavirus called COVID-19, no one is immune, a UCSD medical professor explains. “Everyone can get sick and everyone can spread the disease.”


Opinion / Guest Commentary / Our Readers Write:

You and your children are not immune to coronavirus. I still see too many cavalier friends and acquaintances who think this is hysteria and pandemonium, and are not doing what is right for humanity. The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which causes a disease called COVID-19, is “novel” because it has never existed in people before. Since people have never been infected by this virus before, nobody is immune and we don’t yet have a vaccine. Thus, everyone can be infected, everyone can get sick and everyone can spread the disease.

Although people typically don’t experience symptoms of the infection for two to 14 days after they’re infected, they can still transmit the virus during this time. That means people who appear completely healthy may be infected and are actively spreading the virus to others. It is not good enough to wait until you feel sick to stay home and isolate. We must all stay home as much as possible right now in order to slow the spread of this virus.

We’ve been told that if you’re young and healthy, COVID-19 will probably be like getting a cold or the flu. While this is true for many people, a lot of young and healthy people are also developing major breathing problems that require hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) and ventilators. Current data from China and Italy indicates that at least 15 percent of people with confirmed infections require hospitalization and many require significant medical intervention.

Beyond the young and healthy, there is an even greater concern for people with underlying health conditions and people above the age of 60. We all know many of these people. They are our parents and grandparents. People with diabetes, asthma, heart disease, cancer and a variety of other ailments — all these people are at very high risk of severe disease and death if they contract coronavirus. This is not the flu. It is two to three times more infectious and at least 10 times deadlier.

By staying home and practicing vigilant social distancing, we can dramatically slow the spread of coronavirus. This accomplishes two things: First, it helps to prevent fewer people from becoming infected and protects the most vulnerable among us. Second, and most importantly, by slowing the spread of the virus, we can prevent a sudden surge of cases that will overwhelm our health care system. Our hospitals have only a limited number of beds, ICU space and ventilators.

On our current trajectory of disease spread, we will soon see a spike in cases that most hospitals will not be able to deal with effectively. This means that many people who need care won’t be able to get it. This is what happened in Wuhan, China, and in Italy. When this happens, there is a massive spike in the death rate. In Wuhan, when the health care system was overwhelmed, about one in 20 people with confirmed infections died. In Italy, about one in 14 people with confirmed infections have died. In contrast, South Korea implemented social distancing early on to effectively slow the spread of coronavirus and less than one in 100 of infected people have died. Current estimates are that about half our population will ultimately get infected with this coronavirus. Our collective actions could determine whether millions of people in this country will live or die.

Overwhelming the health care system also poses other major dangers. First, it puts our health care workers at great risk of infection. Doctors, nurses and staff who become infected won’t be able to help and treat patients. Also, people who need hospitalization for other medical conditions may not be able to get it. That could mean no proper medical care for people who are injured in car accidents, have heart attacks or need to deliver babies or for kids with broken bones. If the health care system is overwhelmed, none of us are safe.

The good news is that social distancing is proven to work really well. It is our best hope to slow coronavirus spread, and it can work quickly if we all take it seriously. The more people practice social distancing and the sooner that they do it, the sooner life will return to normal. We need everyone to participate for everyone’s sake. This isn’t about one person, this is about all of us. We all know people who aren’t taking this seriously enough yet. This isn’t just because they are selfish, it is because they do not know the truth about the seriousness of the situation. So please remain calm and stay home with the ones you love.

Robert A.J. Signer is an assistant professor of medicine at UC San Diego. The views expressed here are his own.


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