Editor’s Note: Vice Adm. Jerome M. Adams, M.D., is the 20th surgeon general of the United States. He is a board-certified anesthesiologist with a master’s degree in public health and a member of the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. Before being selected for his current position, he served as the Indiana health commissioner from 2014 to 2017. The opinion expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinions on CNN.
Since being named to the coronavirus task force, I’ve quickly made a few observations. It is clear we must continue to help Americans understand how to protect themselves, but also that we mustn’t recreate the wheel. To address the disease outbreak, we can rely on tried-and-true planning and preparation that was begun long ago.
While the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, can be scary, Americans should remember we’ve experienced other disease outbreaks that we not only managed but overcame. With each occurrence we learned and strengthened our preparedness for the next. Our history with these outbreaks gives us confidence that we have the knowledge, tools and talent to address COVID-19.
We have the very best medical experts and scientists working with Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, all taking the necessary steps to protect the public. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Bob Redfield, is an internationally recognized clinical virologist. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is a world-renowned and respected immunologist who has helped our country navigate viral outbreaks in the past. While we must not become complacent, the public can be assured that we have the best scientific team in the world working day and night to keep our country safe.
Part of my job as surgeon general is to communicate the best available science to the American people — and that includes how we as a country, as communities and individuals, should act to stay healthy. This is especially important as we see more potential community spread and the US response broadens to include both a focus on containment of the virus and limiting its impact.
Communities and institutions should review their pandemic response plans put together or refined during previous outbreaks like the H1N1 flu virus, SARS and Ebola. Health care providers should be on the lookout for patients who have traveled to coronavirus-affected regions and patients with fever and respiratory illness but no alternative explanation, like influenza.
There are things that average Americans should — and shouldn’t — do to protect themselves. Because COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, there are basic public health measures that can limit its spread. Washing hands frequently, staying away from sick people or staying home if sick yourself and covering your cough or sneeze are scientifically proven as some of the best and most practical ways for individuals to stay disease-free.
Masks are not recommended for use by most Americans and hoarding of masks can actually hurt our response by reducing the supply available for medical professionals who need them. It’s critically important our health providers have masks and other medical supplies when caring for people who have been exposed to the virus.
Finally, there have been many comparisons of coronavirus to flu. Such head-to-head comparisons aren’t always helpful, but it is worth noting that we are in the midst of a severe flu season and the flu is still a significant risk to many Americans. Getting your flu shot not only decreases the likelihood you will get or be hospitalized from the flu but preventing the flu can support our response to COVID-19. Community capacity to respond to COVID-19 will be all the stronger if we prevent excess seasonal flu cases through higher flu vaccination. This is particularly true if those flu cases are severe and require hospitalization, thus utilizing key hospital resources.
Americans should take comfort in knowing that we have the best team in the world to protect them from COVID-19, and the best public health and health care systems to rely on. We should be cautious and take appropriate measures to prepare and protect ourselves, but we should not be afraid.
We’ve been through this before and no place in the world is better prepared to handle this challenge. Let’s turn fear into actions that will help us all stay safe.