Guest Opinion: Want to contain covid? Don’t let your guard down
Massachusetts remains among a handful of states that have contained the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak, sickening more than 3 million Americans. But continued vigilance will be essential for a year or longer until a successful vaccine and effective treatments are widely available.
Southcoast Health has been caring for those inflicted with Covid-19 since the first cases were diagnosed in the region more than four months ago, and the system’s clinical leadership caution that reopening the state’s economy and schools require that people continue to wear masks, wash their hands regularly and avoid gathering in large groups.
This is especially true if Massachusetts and the region are to keep the coronavirus from spreading again in the fall and winter, when flu season normally strikes. The potential for a double whammy of Covid-19 and a surge in influenza cases has some physicians concerned.
“People quickly abandon wearing masks and social distancing when the imminent danger of infection appears to recede,” says Dr. Eliesel Lacerda De La Cruz, Southcoast infectious disease specialist.
Southeastern Massachusetts has avoided the worst-case scenarios that were forecast for the cities of New Bedford and Fall River — thanks to the dedication and skill of healthcare professionals and to the rallying of the community in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Residents’ willingness to adhere to the advice of local leadership and supporting medical staff, and organizations and individuals donating personal protective equipment to healthcare professionals, have prevented the region from experiencing the catastrophic experience of badly hit cities like Bergamo, Italy, which an MIT study cautioned, early in the pandemic, could happen in New Bedford.
“There has been a lot of good in Massachusetts, but frankly, I get a little anxious when folks say, ‘Oh, we’ve done better than that state or that state,’” says Dr. Dani Hackner, a pulmonologist who is Southcoast Health’s physician-in-chief for medicine and chief clinical officer.
Hackner worries especially about the risks taken by young people who may “feel invincible” and gather in groups without practicing safe social distancing or uniformly wearing masks. Southcoast President and CEO Keith Hovan has worked closely with elected officials, fellow not-for-profits and businesses to respond to the public health crisis. And now, as Southcoast gradually resumes services and surgeries in accordance with state and CDC guidelines, that work continues.
“Due in large part to the collaboration among state leaders, municipalities, hospitals and the public, we’ve not seen the devastation that was predicted for our region,” he says. “But the crisis is far from over. We’ve learned a lot from this first wave, and we must apply these lessons as we look ahead.”
Massachusetts has lowered its transmission rate dramatically, but the mortality rate from the disease in the Commonwealth — about 7 percent — is higher than the national average of 4.4 percent. Southcoast Health’s leaders all are hopeful that one or more vaccines could be approved by early next year. But they say it will take much longer to produce enough vaccine and a system for distribution.
What we all can do in the meantime:
Wear masks when you’re around people outside your immediate household, including when outdoors. If two people are wearing masks, their protection increases by orders of magnitude than if neither is wearing a mask.
Shop at low-density times and wash hands before and after being in any high-touch areas, such as grocery stores.
Maintain social distancing: More than six feet is best given that the virus is now suspected of being airborne and thus more easily transmitted. Being within two or three feet of another person is especially risky.
Take extra care to avoid exposing elders and other vulnerable populations to the coronavirus.
Avoid gatherings of more than nine people, indoor gatherings, and buffet dining or shared utensils. Because 1 to 3% of the population could have the coronavirus, people at a large indoor event may have a significant chance of contracting the disease.
Wash your hands thoroughly and often.
Shawn Badgley is public information officer for Southcoast Health.