I’m 40, and I can think of two “once in a lifetime” events during my life. One was Hurricane Katrina. I was living in Jackson, and the power was out for days. We couldn’t drink the water, and we grilled just about everything we could thaw out from the deep freeze.
I had no clue how bad it really was because cell towers were down. There was no communication. I was on the first flight that left out of Jackson, headed to Johns Hopkins for a medical rotation in urology, when I fully grasped the devastation. Then I got to the land of electricity and could watch the news.
The second event was seeing the Mississippi State Bulldogs’ football team rank number one in the nation. Bulldog fan or not, you have to appreciate any Mississippi football team reaching number one! Let’s face it, we’re not Alabama or one of the great titans of old, like Michigan or Miami. I soaked it up for as long as I could.
Now, enter the third “once in a lifetime” event. The coronavirus. Y’all, it’s getting real. I’m not a doomsday guy or anything like that, but I understand epidemiology and medicine. I know you’ve been gathering your own data and hearsay over the last few days, but I wanted to give you a medically educated take on things from one of your own—a physician in the beautiful community we call the ‘Sip.
‘Social Distancing’ Is About Reducing the Rate of Speed
You may be thinking, “the virus itself doesn’t sound that bad. I’m young. I can take it. What’s the big deal?”
Let me try to explain. You’re right, partly; for most people it’s not that bad. This is different than the common cold or flu, though, because it’s novel or new—in other words, the world has never seen this virus. Therefore, no one initially has a resistance to it. Let’s throw in another perfect-storm factor that folks haven’t talked as much about—everyone just came back from spring break. As a state, many of us just traveled afar and have now returned.
Symptom-wise, the coronavirus is roughly more than the common cold but less than the flu. The most common symptoms include a cough (likely a dry one), fatigue and fever. What makes it hard for all of us is that we are about to hit spring “yellow snow” (pollen) season, and many of us will get a cough and fatigue due to allergies anyway.
The difference is you won’t likely have a fever, but if you’re in doubt whatsoever, get checked. After about five to eight days of the main symptoms, 15% of folks will develop shortness of breath and need hospital admission. Now, keep following me here, 2% of the overall infected will need to be in the ICU and likely on a ventilator. If you’re smart with numbers, that means that 13% of folks who are admitted to the hospital will need an ICU admission.
This is where the problem lies.
We can’t contain the coronavirus. That’s not the point of all this “social distancing.” What they’re trying to do is slow the rate of infection. It has spread. It will spread. The rate of spread is the key.
Here’s why: If the infection spreads as fast as it did in other countries, like Italy, we wouldn’t have enough ICU beds or ventilators to accommodate everyone; therefore, the death rate would significantly increase.
Let’s run some numbers: If the U.S. population is 331 million and, let’s say, only 40% of people get sick, and of the 15% that need hospitalization, 2% overall need an ICU admission, likely with a ventilator. That’s about 3 million people if it all happened around the same time.
Now, in the U.S., let’s assume we have 925,000 hospital beds, 45,000 ICU beds and 160,000 ventilators. Worst case, if all those needing a ventilator got sick at the same time, of that 3 million, only 160,000 could be treated. That’s treating about 5% who need a life-sustaining intervention—let that sink in. Again, not to fear-monger, but to be real, do you see where the problem lies? It’s not the virus itself, it’s the rate of spread.
What You Can Do Now
There are several very real ways you can help decrease the rate of speed of the coronavirus:
- Wash your hands (with soap and for more than 20 seconds—sing your ABCs – that’s about 20 seconds). Antibacterial squirts don’t help because a viral infection is different than a bacterial infection.
- Cough into your elbow. For the younger generation, that’s like “dabbing.”
- Try not to touch your face.
- Stay 3 feet apart from others. I know this is not our normal greeting of brotherly love, but right now the greater love of our brother is to lower the rate of spread of this virus.
- If you feel sick, avoid all interactions you possibly can for 14 days.
- If you’re at home with kids on extended Spring Break, don’t travel just because you can. Try to stay at home and make the best of it.
Health-care Community: We Are the Front Line
When we all decided to pursue medicine as a career, we committed to the Hippocratic Oath. Basically, what it means for you is that we’ll be there if/when you get sick. That’s our job. We are the front line. As providers and hospitals, we will take care of our community because that’s what we do.
So, fellow Mississippians, see this as a very real and impactful time in our lives. Don’t use this as a time to isolate yourselves but band together (virtually) as one, and it’ll help the endearing community of the ‘Sip grow even deeper roots of love for one another.
We will get through this. We will overcome.
Dr. Kenneth Thomas, MD, practices in Starkville, Miss.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,000 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.