Dr. Don Stern (copy)

Dr. Don Stern, new acting director if the Rappahannock Area Health District.

AS MANY of us head

into our third week of

staying home from work, school, and other events, I think it is starting to sink in that we are living in unusual times.

I sympathize with the families in our community who have been most directly impacted by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), whether because a family member has been ill or because of other hardships such as lost wages. I understand there is a lot of fear and anxiety regarding COVID-19. While we all should take the public health recommendations seriously, we also hope to be able to relieve some of this anxiety about the illness.

As positive cases continue to appear in our community, we must remember that most of the respiratory illness in the community are due to flu or cold viruses. For about 80 percent of those who contract COVID-19, the disease is mild to moderate and is unlikely to cause hospitalization. In these mild cases, people may simply think they have a cold or mild flu and are able to recover at home.

The reason the state has implemented such substantial measures such as cancelling schools is not necessarily to protect those who may fall ill and do just fine; rather, it is to protect the community members who have been found to be at greater risk; the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions. It is also to prevent overburdening the healthcare and hospital system by “flattening the curve” and slowing the spread of the disease.

Let’s compare COVID-19 to flu. During a normal flu season, people don’t necessarily know if they have walked by someone in the grocery store who has the flu. Flu is transmitted in a similar manner to COVID-19 and, also like COVID-19, can be a serious illness for those with underlying illnesses, especially the elderly.

Yet we don’t go running out of the grocery store in fear when someone start coughing in the checkout line. Why is that? It’s because we are all familiar with the flu, but COVID-19 is a new virus, and this creates quite a bit of uncertainty.

The issue is not that COVID-19 is an especially harsh virus for most. A majority of people will have mild to moderate symptoms and will be able to recover at home. The issue is that none of us are immune since COVID-19 is a new virus.

The good news is recent studies have shown that an immune response begins within days. That is, our internal defense system recognizes this virus in most healthy people and begins to wage war, killing the virus and resulting in no or mild symptoms.

Those people whose internal defense system is not working as well may have difficulty battling the virus. The successful elimination of the infection relies on the health status of the infected individual.

Some groups have been identified as being more at risk for more severe outcomes due to COVID-19, including older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart problems. If you fall within these groups, social distancing and staying home becomes even more important to protect your own health, but know that it is still OK to step outside for a few moments for some fresh air or a walk down to the post box .

As a population, we will acquire immunity with the illness as more people are infected and recover, and as a vaccine is developed. The disruption in our lives will end and we can then all go back to work, visit our grandkids, go to church, etc.

For the time being, don’t let fear and anxiety of the disease overwhelm you. But we do ask that you do your part to keep the community safe and healthy.

What can you do? To prevent the spread of illness, we are strongly encouraging all to practice social distancing and good hygiene measures. Individuals are encouraged to stay home as much as possible.

When completing essential tasks in public spaces, such as grocery shopping, it is recommended to keep at least six feet of distance between yourself and others, and to wash your hands or use an alcohol based hand sanitizer after touching items such as grocery carts. Practicing these measures helps prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.

Dr. Donald Stern is acting director of the Rappahannock Area Health District.

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