People are coming to see me now with a cough and fever who would have stayed home before. I know what they are thinking before they ever say it. In fact, I received a call this afternoon from an elderly friend of mine who was having diarrhea and was feeling weak and didn’t know what to do. He was sounding like he was going to pass out but managed to barely croak out his concern: coronavirus.
“You don’t have it,” I said, and he immediately sounded stronger. But then he paused and asked how I knew. I told him I knew the characteristic symptoms from conferring with doctors who had taken care of actual coronavirus patients.
Soon after, one of my regular patients called, a young woman concerned about a mild cough and nasal congestion. She was about to travel on a plane flight. “You probably have a cold,” I said. “Wash your hands frequently, drink fluids, disinfect surfaces and wear a mask on the plane.”
She replied that she had been told the masks were useless. “They are, unless you are the one who is sick,” I said. “They will help keep you from spreading your cold by droplets to those around you in a sneeze or cough.”
People are panicking, worst-case scenario-ing, losing sight of the low numbers and overpersonalizing the risk. In order to combat this, I need test kits to rule out coronavirus, and the kits, many thousands of them, are finally on the way to major medical centers as well as private labs around the country.
The visit to Nebraska
But in order to combat the fear of coronavirus, I need information. I understand that public health vigilance is too easily misperceived as imminence, when the real goal has little to do with personal risk but rather is an attempt to stamp out an emerging pathogen before it can take a real recurrent foothold here.
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We are frightened because the numbers are increasing, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally as of Tuesday night, in South Korea (more than 7,500 cases), Italy (more than 10,000) Iran (more than 8,000) and right here at home.
Last month, I went out to the National Training, Simulation and Quarantine Center at the University of Nebraska for “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” to see whether I could figure out why this new coronavirus was so easily misperceived by an anxious public. What I learned taught me about how the virus behaves but also the courage of the doctors and nurses who are fighting it.
Nebraska does its own testing, and the co-medical director of the quarantine unit, Dr. Michael Wadman, told me that the test takes six hours. This approach, when used across the country, will be a huge advantage over the prior method of sending tests to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and having to wait several days for an answer.
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Of course, even as this testing kit becomes readily available as it is this week at major medical centers, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, it will remain far more important that I test for and treat the flu, which has already infected over 34 million people in the United States this season and has killed at least 20,000.
Unless the coronavirus spreads much more extensively, the main purpose of the kits will be to reassure people that they don’t have the virus. This is the case in South Korea, where more than 140,000 people have been tested.
Lessons from medical personnel
Dr. Wadman, who has been taking care of coronavirus evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, told me that there is a way to distinguish these patients from flu patients. Patients who are really sick with the flu tend to have fever, fatigue and body aches, whereas those who are really sick with coronavirus tend to have high fever, cough, chest congestion and shortness of breath.
I interviewed Dr. Andre Kalil, who was running a clinical trial on the promising anti-viral drug remdesivir. One patient in the biocontainment unit was in the study and receiving the drug or the placebo.
I interviewed several compassionate highly skilled nurses who taught me about the various kinds of personal protective equipment they wore into patient rooms, never once considering their own safety. Nurse Shelly Schwedhelm, director of biopreparedness, told me that the patients were all improving.
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One of these quarantined patients, Jeri Seratti Goldman, who gave permission to use her name, told us what it was like to live with minimal contact from the outside world: Three visitors per day brought food and checked her vitals. She soldiered on by adhering to routine, including exercise (there was a treadmill in the room), and work on her computer. When a tooth broke, the staff couldn’t send in a dentist, so she had to temporarily repair the tooth with glue, which she called bondo.
I also saw an ambulance arrive from the airport to bring another patient, reunited with a spouse. The emotions were strong. So far, the most devastating impact of this virus is on the human psyche (fear), though the potential risk it poses to human health is certainly real.
Emerging viruses and fear of these viruses are natural, but the divisiveness and panic they cause is man-made. We need to come together to defeat our natural enemies.
Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a Fox News medical correspondent, is a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Siegel is the author of several books on outbreaks, including “False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.” Follow him on Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Our fear and panic are the most devastating impacts of coronavirus