Listen to WPLN News Special Report: Coronavirus In Tennessee in the audio above, or watch the Facebook Live video.
We have more questions than answers about what coexisting with COVID-19 is going to look like here in Tennessee.
But in a live, one-hour special on Monday, March 16, we learned a little bit more.
As coronavirus continue to rise and social distancing recommendations dominate public discourse, WPLN’s Blake Farmer sat down with Dr. William Schaffner and Dr. Kelly Moore to discuss the pandemic and answer some of your most pressing questions. Schaffner is Tennessee’s resident “flu guru,” a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Moore has chased down epidemics across the world with the CDC and wrote Tennessee’s first modern pandemic response plan. She’s now a consultant who focuses on immunization strategy and the true meaning of “social distancing.”
For the latest information regarding confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, visit the Tennessee Health Department’s COVID-19 website.
What is the most urgent action for everyone to take?
First and foremost, said Moore and Schaffner, is limiting unnecessary contact between people and practicing hygiene. That involves washing hands regularly, keeping six feet of distance, disinfecting areas that are frequently touched and avoiding crowds.
Moore says this is also the time to pause and assess your situation: what your employer’s expectations are, how you will be able to continue to live their lives while considering those who are most vulnerable.
“The whole purpose of this exercise of social distancing — not only is it to protect our vulnerable members in the community, it’s to protect our health care system so that they can provide the care they need to the people who need it most,” Moore said.
“There are only so many beds in the hospitals. There are only so many ventilators. There are only so many doctors and nurses and pharmacists. And we need to give them the breathing room to do their jobs.”
Social distancing and abundance of caution are the best practices right now, but what is “allowed” under these measures?
Many listeners asked whether they should attend birthday parties, dentist appointments or workout classes, or if children who are no longer in school will be safe on playgrounds or with elderly caretakers.
Unlike Wuhan, China, or Italy, Schaffner says, the United States is not yet at the point of restricting movement. But by voluntarily limiting unnecessary interactions and keeping one’s distance, Schaffner says it will be harder for the virus to jump from person to person.
That means large birthday parties or crowded restaurants are a no. But activities with a limited number of people, like a walk outdoors, dinner with a friend who has not been exposed and even a meal at a non-crowded restaurant, are OK.
“Every little thing we do reduces our risk. So even though we’re not perfect, we are making a contribution to keeping ourselves safe, keeping others safe and contributing to a safer community,” Schaffner said. “I like to quote that old French philosopher Voltaire, who reminded us waiting for perfection is the great enemy of the current good. We can do a lot of good by just trying and paying attention.”
As for medical appointments, communication with professionals is key. Patients should call their doctors ahead of time if they have concerns about sitting in waiting rooms or prevention practices in the office.
For those who think they may have the virus, limiting exposure is the most important thing they can do. That means calling a doctor or the 877-857-2945), rather than simply showing up at an emergency room, where people could be exposed to the illness. Ultimately, it is better to take safety precautions and stay home, rather than risk spreading the illness to others.
With so much still to learn about COVID-19, Moore says that social distancing practices are incredibly important to give the medical community time to understand the virus and begin developing more precise prevention and treatment methods.
“This is not going to go away in a few weeks,” Moore said. “This is going to be something we’re probably living with for the next year or two, and we should expect that some things may change for a year or two.”
How important is it to disinfect surfaces?
COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, meaning it is not something the medical community has encountered before. It is difficult even for infectious disease professionals like Schaffner and Moore to know precisely how the virus behaves and how to combat it.
Schaffner said that limiting face-to-face contact seems most effective at slowing the spread of the virus. Other measures, like disinfecting surfaces is also a good practice, as it isn’t known yet how the virus spreads outside of direct contact.
“Remember, hands are the final way that the virus, which might be on a surface, gets to us,” Schaffner said.
If you’re young and healthy, is it better to just contract the coronavirus and get over it?
Schaffner and Moore responded with a unified “no.”
It’s true that severe cases of COVID-19 show up more often among the elderly and immunocompromised. But that does not mean young people are safe.
“I think one of the misconceptions people have is that the only people who get seriously ill are people who are older, who have medical problems, even though young, healthy people are not dying in the numbers that we’re seeing in the older adult population,” Moore said. “It is still possible for people of any age to contract a serious illness and require hospitalization, taking up a bed that someone else also may need.”
How is Tennessee doing right now? What do those numbers tell us?
Tennessee has yet to see a large number of reported hospitalizations due to COVID-19. Schaffner says that this is what the social distancing measures are designed to prevent — limiting the strain on the healthcare system.
Still, the number of confirmed cases reported in Tennessee rises daily, and it’s clear that the virus is spreading through communities.
“The more we start to test, the more we’ll find,” Schaffner said. “I think that the number of positive cases that we have now is the tip of an iceberg. I’m not sure how large that iceberg is, but I’m absolutely confident that there are more cases than we’ve currently defined.”
As other countries face the same challenge, the medical community and the general public are learning how to make the best decisions in the interest of public health.
“I know that folks are looking at the example of Italy and saying, ‘We don’t want to go there.’ So the steps that we’re taking now and the reason we’re on the radio educating folks today is to help people understand how to make better decisions for themselves and their own families,” Moore said. “We can change. Our fate is not sealed. So are we going to become Italy? Well, that’s up to us.”
A few final quick hits from Moore and Schaffner:
- Should I go to the gym? Only if you are positive that you are healthy and you can stay at least six feet from other patrons working out.
- Is it okay to swim for exercise? Swimming has very little face to face contact, so this should be okay. However, try to do this during hours when exercise facilities are less populated.
- Can I take my kids to the playground? Avoid playgrounds. This virus is a numbers game, and there are lots of unknown kids at a playground. Children should stick to playing with small groups of known friends to mitigate risk.
- Should I join a friend for a walk? If you are both healthy, an outdoor walk is a great way to remain active while social distancing.
This program was produced by Blake Farmer, Anita Bugg, Cameron Adkins, Chas Sisk, Emily Siner, Tony Gonzalez, Elle Turner, Samantha Max and Samantha Zern.