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Infectious Disease Doctor Shares How To Protect Your Family If A COVID-19 Pandemic Happens

The doctor says if a coronavirus pandemic is declared, it isn't the end of the world.

Editor’s note: As of this writing (and these numbers are likely to change when you read it), COVID-19 patients are now at 82,027. While 96% are in China, more new cases have been reported outside of that country for the first time. On February 26, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. issued a statement, confirming a person “who was not exposed to anyone known to have been infected with the coronavirus, and who had not traveled to countries where it is circulating” has tested positive for COVID-19.

As an infectious disease specialist told The New York Times, “That would suggest there are other undetected cases out there, and we have already started some low-grade transmission.”

What does it mean for the rest of us? Weighing in is Dr. Edsel Maurice T. Salvana, an award-winning infectious diseases specialist and molecular biologist.

As COVID-19 cases continue to increase in more and more countries, the word “pandemic” is cropping up in news reports and in public health discussions. To be clear, we aren’t in a pandemic situation yet, but if the trends continue and more countries fail to contain the spread, we may be there in the near future.

What exactly is a pandemic?

A pandemic is an epidemic of worldwide proportions. If enough nations end up with sustained transmission in the global community, then it will be declared. As for us in the Philippines, we have so far done our part in containment.

Will it be the end of the world? NOPE. Will there be more cases? Yes. When a pandemic happens, stringent containment measures may be relaxed, and priorities will shift to efficient case management and mitigation of transmission. Travel bans may remain, especially for the countries with the most cases, but these will be less essential to the response as the virus can come from practically anywhere.

If a pandemic is declared, what should you do?

Don’t panic

The World Health Organization declares a pandemic to mobilize resources and to focus on minimizing the impact of an infectious agent. For COVID-19, this means hospitals will need to be empowered and strengthened to cope with a possible surge in the number of people who will become sick. Some hospitals may be designated as COVID-19 specialist hospitals where healthcare workers are specifically trained to efficiently and competently care for these patients.

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The world will not change much overnight, but shifting our priorities means we will be better prepared to handle the next wave of cases.

Protect the most vulnerable members of your family

Early data is showing that about 80% of people who get sick with COVID-19 will develop only mild symptoms, while 20% can develop more severe disease. (The number of COVID-19 patients who have recovered is 32,756, as of this writing.) 

The ones at the highest risk for a bad outcome are the elderly and those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease.

A higher percentage of men compared with women with COVID-19 have died in China, and this may have been partly because more males smoke in China. Now is also the best time to stop smoking.

Protecting your loved ones means avoiding unnecessary travel and practicing social distancing. Elderly people should avoid crowds and crowded places. Make sure everyone’s vaccinations for influenza and bacterial pneumonia are up to date since these can prove fatal if they occur at the same time as a COVID-19 infection.

Listen to the authorities and follow instructions

In times of a health emergency, the public must recognize the health department’s authority and cooperate. As the health system becomes stressed, we need to do what we can to help make their jobs easier. This includes refraining from spreading fake news, not panic buying, and avoiding activities that can increase our risk of getting sick.

Wash your hands and practice good hygiene and cough etiquette. If you are sick, wear a surgical mask to decrease the risk of spreading the virus. Stay home if you have a cough or a cold to prevent transmitting the virus to other people.

We have lived through pandemics before, just like H1N1. These do have an ending, and many, many people are working hard to make an impact. Scientists and physicians have already started developing vaccines and testing drugs. It is just a matter of time before these become available.

If COVID-19 does become a pandemic, we should do our part in helping prevent its spread with good hand hygiene and basic infection control practices. Chances are most people will end up with a bad cold and will recover. We should take good care of our sickly and elderly family members since they are at higher risk for severe disease.

Most of all, don’t ever panic. And don’t make people panic by sharing fake or misleading news. The truth is frightening enough without making stuff up. Let’s hope our fears aren’t realized, but let’s prepare for the worst. No infectious disease can prevail if we all work together.

Edsel Maurice T. Salvana, M.D., DTM&H, FPCP, FIDSA is an award-winning infectious diseases specialist and molecular biologist at the University of the Philippines and the Philippine General Hospital. He has written and spoken extensively about HIV in the Philippines, the Dengvaxia controversy, and the COVID-19 outbreak. As a Senior TED Fellow, he is constantly seeking ways to communicate complicated scientific concepts to a lay audience, and strongly believes that this is the best way to combat pseudoscience and fake news.

This article originally appeared on Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by editors.

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