REGION — Washing hands thoroughly, avoiding touching frequently used surfaces, disinfecting the home and practicing social distancing are going to be actions everyone needs to practice for the long haul to beat the current public health crisis, according to a local infectious disease expert.
On March 21, Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), who represents much of the North coast, hosted a Facebook Live town hall discussion with Dr. Richard Garfein, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of California San Diego, to help inform the public and answer questions about dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. The virus that caused COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus first identified during an investigation of an outbreak in Wuhan, China. It is believed that the virus spreads mainly between people who are in close contact with one another (about six feet) through respiratory droplets produced when sneezing or coughing.
Additionally, it is believed to spread by touching surfaces with the virus on it and then touching the mouth, nose or eyes. Those with the virus may have mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath. Severe complications include pneumonia in both lungs, multi-organ failure and in some cases death.
As of March 22, San Diego County had a total of 205 cases, with its first death from the disease reported that same day. As of March 23, there were more than 42,000 coronavirus cases in the U.S. with at least 500 deaths.
According to Levin, the country is currently dealing with two interrelated crises: the public health crisis that is the coronavirus, and an economic crisis stemming from the other crisis. With people out of work and businesses shut down, many are worried about maintaining a roof over their heads and food on the table for what could be months or longer.
“The best way to address the economic crisis is to deal with the public health crisis,” Levin said during the town hall.
Both Garfein and Levin stressed the importance of taking the public health crisis seriously and continue practicing what the CDC recommends.
“I cannot stand when I hear people say it’s just the flu,” Levin said. “It’s far more deadly, far more harmful than the flu.”
Levin also called for anyone who doesn’t believe the virus is real “to wake up.”
According to Garfein, everyone needs to be washing their hands well with soap and do this anytime they blow their nose, sneeze or cough. If washing hands isn’t an option, use a hand sanitizer with 60 percent alcohol. Garfein also asks people to avoid surfaces touched by others frequently, like elevator buttons and handrails, and definitely avoid touching the face or eyes if those surfaces have been touched.
“The virus doesn’t go through your skin on your hands, so if you do touch something, don’t panic,” Garfein said. “Just don’t put your fingers on your eyes, mouth and nose because that’s how the virus gets into your body.”
If someone is sick, that person needs to avoid others. Call a doctor to walk through the symptoms of the coronavirus. Recovering at home, in a separate room from others, is advised if you are ill, Garfein said, adding that in China the virus was being transmitted through people in their homes.
“If somebody is sick, make sure you keep your distance,” he said.
Garfein also noted that the CDC currently doesn’t recommend people use gloves.
“When you wear gloves, you tend to feel protected and you might not be as cautious about washing your hands,” Garfein said. “Anything you touch with a contaminated glove is going to get contaminated as well.”
One Vista resident asked if spraying Lysol on gloves could prevent contamination and potentially clean other surfaces, but that won’t work either.
“Even though you might spray Lysol on gloves, eventually it will dry up and not be effective and you’re going to continue to spread the virus,” he explained. “If you have bare hands, you’re more conscious about hands being dirty and are more likely to wash them.”
The virus can also remain on packages and takeout food boxes for some time depending on the material. While people shouldn’t be afraid to touch it, Garfein said, they should try to get rid of the container as soon as possible and wash hands after touching it.
Levin said those who are not high-risk need to be careful not to compromise the health of the higher-risk people such as infants and the elderly. This can help prevent hospitals from becoming inundated, dealing with more cases, and diminishing doctors’ ability to take care of those at more risk.
Garfein and Levin also discussed the possibility of installing temporary hospitals. Garfein said the San Diego area has “some of the best hospitals in the country” which have the adequate capacity right now, though he worries about other parts of the country that don’t. He said the area should be prepared to install temporary hospitals, if necessary. Still, even with more beds, Garfein noted there needs to be enough of other equipment such as ventilators.
The doctor and congressman also discussed the country’s lack of tests for the virus and the restrictive criteria for getting tested. According to Levin, in order for a person to get tested at this point, they need to be showing all the signs for the coronavirus, and even then results aren’t quick.
If testing had been provided earlier and current steps to prevent the spread were done sooner, Levin said, the country wouldn’t be where it is with the disease today.
Levin also discussed how the government is working to address the current economic crisis.
On March 6, President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion spending bill called “Phase One” to fund efforts to fight the pandemic, which includes funding research on a vaccine, giving money to state and local governments to prevent spread and allocating money to help from spreading the virus overseas.
On March 13, the House of Representatives passed a stimulus bill called “Phase Two” which would include free virus testing, expanded unemployment benefits, additional funds for Medicaid, and a provision requiring paid sick leave for some workers. The Senate approved it on March 18, and Trump signed it into law that same day.
Trump also announced a state of emergency on March 13, allowing the federal government to distribute up to $50 billion in aid to states, cities and territories.
On March 17, Trump and Secretary Steve Mnuchin suggested a roughly $1 trillion stimulus package to the Senate. A draft bill of “Phase Three” was released on March 19, and includes a tax credit of $1,200 per adult and $500 for each child for people making less than $75,000 a year. This would be less for those making between $75,000 and $99,000 and no credit for those making over that threshold.
Levin disagrees with this approach and prefers a bill that Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts) is working on, which Levin explained would send $4,000 in annual direct cash payments to adults earning less than $100,000 a year and include $2,000 per child. The bill would also send $2,000 to each adult and $1,000 per child for those making more than $100,000.
Both Garfein and Levin couldn’t say when people can expect to go back to school or work. Garfein said he is hopeful that a decline in cases will happen soon, but even when that happens, people shouldn’t expect to go back to work and stop taking precautions for fear of causing a second wave of the pandemic.
“It’s going to be a practice we should be used to,” Garfein said.
To watch the virtual town hall, please see below:
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son