With the first coronavirus fatality recorded here in the United States, there is a heightened alarm around what may lie ahead for all of us. In truth, there is no telling what damage this force of nature may leave in its wake. But that is not to say that there is nothing we can do to weaken its impact.
Protecting ourselves from the virus is a collective responsibility that requires action from each of us to varying degrees.
First, we must consider how each of us responds personally to the threat of an outbreak. There are basic handwashing and hygiene techniques than can limit our chances of infection and help us prevent the spread of the disease if we are unknowingly infected. We can avoid large crowds, wash our hands regularly, cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze and start preparing our homes for the possibility that we’ll fall ill and need to stay home while sick.
Second, we must think of how we will respond as a community and what we do collectively to ready ourselves. If you work in health, make sure frontline healthcare workers have a steady supply of protective equipment and that protocols are in place to meet a surge in demand. Bolster telehealth capabilities now so that in the event of an outbreak we can counsel patients remotely and direct them to the right level of care for their medical needs.
If you work outside of the healthcare community, prepare your workplace environment to protect yourself and all employees. Ask leaders at your schools, places of worship and other public gathering places how they will respond in the event that the virus spreads.
The third effort we must focus on may lie beyond most of our individual domains but is equally important for us to understand and support – the scientific effort towards a medical solution. Efforts to develop a combination of drugs that can treat those who are newly infected and prevent them from passing the infection on to others should be paramount.
The onus for this work does not lie solely with scientists and researchers, but also with the pharmaceutical industry and government who must provide researchers with the necessary resources. One of the best steps we can take now to spur action on both sides is to list the coronavirus as an emerging biothreat under the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and its Project BioShield. Such a move would create a market for an anti-coronavirus drug that doesn’t currently exist.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must consider how we talk about the potential threat we face. We do not yet know the trajectory of this outbreak but even the most sanguine among us will admit to at least a hint of fear of what may come.
Clear, concise and credible public health communications are imperative in this time of crisis. If we can’t trust what our leaders are telling us to do or – worse yet – if they leave us confused about the possible risk, we leave ourselves fully exposed to the forces of nature and all the worst that this virus can bring.