COVID-19 prevention: Social distancing is key


A Marshfield Clinic Health System physician says social distancing is the key to stopping the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.


Infectious disease Epidemiologist Physician Ed Belongia calls the COVID-19 pandemic “a very scary situation that everybody needs to pay attention to.” He says the only thing we can do right now to protect people is what has become known as social distancing.

“In other words, stop transmission. If everybody does that, and takes this really seriously, we can flatten the curve,” Belongia said. “This virus can spread so fast that it can overwhelm a health care system with so many people requiring critical care. More people are sick than ICU beds are available. We don’t want that situation. We have time to prepare for this. We have a window of time. It is already spreading quickly, but we’re not at the point Italy is yet. The social distancing is the key to flattening the curve. And what that means is we spread out the cases over a longer time. We’ll probably prevent some people from getting sick.

“And even the people who would get sick anyway, by spreading it out, we allow the health care system to have more capacity to respond, because it’s not all happening at once. We can’t deal with this sort of explosion of cases. We really are depending on the public to understand this, and to do this. And if we do that everywhere, I think we can avoid the fate of Italy, where things are really out of control.”

Dr. Belongia says COVID-19 is spreading faster than the flu virus ,and is much more deadly – with no vaccine. He says COVID-19 is a milder illness than the flu, but tends to last longer, and has no vaccine. Its main symptoms sound familiar: fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

“We think it is spread a lot like the flu virus – that is from coughing and sneezing – but we don’t totally understand all the ways this virus is spread,” he added. “They key is to, as much as possible, shelter at home, stay away from people, avoid touching your eyes or your mouth or your nose, because that’s how it can infect you. It doesn’t go through your skin. So that’s why the hand-washing is so important. Cover your cough or sneeze to protect others.”

In the meantime, Dr. Belongia and his research team plan to shift their focus from studying the flu to digging deeper into COVID-19.

“We do work with the CDC in Atlanta, and most of what we do is focused on the flu virus and looking at how well the flu vaccine is working,” he said. “What we anticipate doing is switching over in the coming weeks to learn more about COVID, what kind of illness it’s causing, how severe it is, and how long people are capable of passing the virus on, and we’re developing those plans right now with CDC.

“Because we have been a CDC site for many years, CDC will be relying on us,  as well as other sites around the country,  to develop a response for patient care. Our response is to try to do some of the applied research that will answer some of the really important questions about how this virus is behaving that will help inform our efforts to protect the public.”

Dr. Belongia is urging everyone to pay attention to and follow the recommendations of health officials.

“Most experts think this is not going to be a short-term thing. There’s certainly a possibility that, as weather warms up, we may see a reduction in transmission,” he explained. “Other coronaviruses do spread in humans and have been around for a long time, but they don’t cause the severe illness that COVID causes. But these other viruses tend to go away in the summer. So, if this one tends to go away, or at least become more reduced, that might buy us some breathing room.

“Although if it does go away in the summer, there’s every expectation that it will be back in the fall and the winter, but it might give us a little more time to prepare. But I want to be very clear, we don’t know that that’s going to happen, and it might not happen at all and it may just get worse. It’s not going to go on forever.

“We know from the experience in China, it gets to a certain point where it kind of burns itself out in the local population, but that could go on for weeks or months. And again, by social distancing, our goal is to flatten that down so it’s not as bad, and we can get through it. Everyone needs to realize that this is not going to go on forever, but we need to do the right things and be prepared now.”

Before joining Marshfield Clinic Health System over two decades ago, Belongia worked in the public health system in Minnesota and at the CDC in Atlanta.

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