CoronaVirus: is the Meme more dangerous than the Virus? Yes! and No!

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Okay, everybody, take a breath. We’re in the midst of a storm of Coronavirus news, and it is bombarding us 24-7. As a physician, an informaticist, a parent, and a son of aging parents, I (like many of you) wear lots of hats and have lots of perspectives relating to this pandemic. Boiling it down, here is what I’m aware of, followed by my take:

  • The Coronavirus – COVID 19 has arrived in the US. Although it is orders of magnitude smaller (fewer infected, ill) than the Influenza virus, there is no vaccine, the duration of asymptomatic (no symptom) incubation is longer, and the infectivity is higher, and so spread is inevitable.
  • It is unclear as yet what the biology of the virus is, as the weather changes, will it gradually dissipate with the warmer months, as others have.
  • Countries like China, Italy and others have large numbers of seriously ill patients, mostly elderly, in cases overwhelming the capability of the health services there.
  • Areas taking severe measures to quarantine, limit exposure, travel, gatherings have had some success in reducing spread.
  • Our health service capability also has a limit, and should a pandemic accelerate here, our ICU / ventilator / hospital capacity could easily be overwhelmed resulting in rationing, having to choose “which patient gets the next ventilator that is available?”
  • It has been, apparently, 100 years since the last major pandemic will major mortality: the Spanish Flu following World War I. Most folks alive have no “gut feel” for what a real pandemic is like.
  • A Meme is an IDEA that can spread from human to human even more quickly than actual viruses, especially with the INTERNET. There are VIRUS memes and there are FEAR memes. Lets look at them separately.
  • Hmm, you might even consider THIS BLOG POST A MEME. Consider it a COMMON SENSE MEME (according to me).
  • I’m aware that toilet paper, hand gel, and other items are running out in many stores, as people stockpile. This is a symptom of anxiety/panic.
  • I’m reading about toxic interpersonal interactions as asians are targeted by others as being a source of infection, based on appearance rather than reason.
  • I’m aware that large gatherings are being cancelled, schools and large organizations switching to virtual-meetings to avoid gatherings.
  • Our organization has just put in place a travel ban related to work and the automatic cancellation of all internal gatherings >75 persons, with daily adjustments and announcements.
  • I’m aware of many folks stating “this is ridiculous; I’m going to go on with usual business and ignore these outrageous restrictions.”
  • I’m aware of physician colleagues stating (on the other hand) “This is ridiculous, why are we restricting the testing of any patients for COVID? I’m going to refer EVERYONE for screening because we need to know what the community prevalence is, regardless of symptoms.” At risk: exhausting the testing supply for those at highest risk (symptoms, and recent travel, or exposure to known case).

Whooo. Calm down everyone. Lots of valid viewpoints here.

CMIO’s take:

  • Handwashing, soap and water, as often as you can think of it. Hand-gel is a nice to have, but soap and water please.
  • Avoid touching the face (like saying … don’t think about an elephant. What do you think about?).
  • Consolidate your trips out of the house as possible. Grocery shop for somewhat more, and go out less often. Virtual meetings! Face-time! Skype!
  • Toilet paper shortage? OK, lets try to use less for now. Geez.
  • N95 masks? Save them for the healthcare providers taking care of hospitalized patients. Most plain folk don’t need them. If you desire, ok to get REGULAR masks and then use them to REMIND YOU NOT TO TOUCH YOUR OWN FACE (the major way to transmit is hand to your own face). It does nothing to avoid virus in the air, which is already incredibly unlikely in the community.
  • Go about your business and take prudent common sense measures.
  • I will be going to work at the clinic for our usual work, and screening patients, just like we always do. There are very few cases in Colorado and we are extra vigilant, but still going to work, with no masks UNLESS we encounter a high risk patient with symptoms.
  • We are scaling up our Virtual Visit capability to see patients by online 1:1 meetings over secure connection.
  • Yes, cancelling large gatherings and meetings and moving to virtual when possible is a great idea despite the inconvenience; if we can influence and slow down the pandemic spread/infection curve for our elderly relatives so that we don’t slam and overwhelm the health system, this will save many lives. I’m all for it.
  • Stay safe everyone. Be kind to each other. The FEAR meme can be more dangerous than the VIRUS, but also lets be prudent.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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