Editor’s Note: James P. Phillips, MD, is an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the George Washington University, where he serves as chief of the Section of Disaster and Operational Medicine. Follow him on Twitter @DrPhillipsMD. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
We don’t have to be helpless in the face of coronavirus.
I understand that people are yearning for a sense of control in what feels like an out-of-control situation. I call my father more often than I did a month ago, and he helps me understand the anxiety that he and other folks over 60 feel as they’re inundated with reports that they are more “vulnerable” to the effects of the virus.
The anxiety extends way beyond older Americans. Just look at the number of canceled conferences, the number of companies telling staff to work from home, the nationwide shortages in toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other goods in stores and online.
The patients I see in my work as a physician in the emergency department speak of a general sense of helplessness, as though a tidal wave is coming, and there is nothing they can do except wash their hands, try to find black market hand sanitizer, stay home and pray.
The virus known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease called Covid-19, is currently spreading across the globe despite our best efforts, and I believe it will continue to do so. Every state, every country. As I wrote for CNN last week, I accept that my profession makes my own infection seem almost inevitable. Naturally, people are clamoring for answers to currently unanswerable questions. Will I get it? How many people are going to get infected and what percentage of them will die? Who will die?
Nobody can tell you for sure. If you hear someone stating they can, you should not believe them and you should evaluate their agenda.
There are far too many variables to allow for perfect predictions: potential seasonal variation, how well a population follows public health recommendations and the possible discovery of therapeutic medications, to name a few.
As new infection numbers appear to drop in China and South Korea, keep in mind that our countries have different social and cultural norms that could play a role, including differences in compliance with government wishes an degrees of social intimacy. In addition, there are political differences: the authoritarian measures used to socially isolate tens of millions of Chinese citizens are not realistic options in Western democracies like ours.
Of those who contract the virus, many are going to require hospital admission for pneumonia and/or complications of their preexisting diseases. Among those hospitalized, studies show that significant numbers will develop a complicated disease process called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Many of these patients will require ICU care and a mechanical ventilator, and sheer math makes many of us in healthcare fearful that we could run out of rooms and ventilators in the coming months. Math matters.
So far, coronavirus does not appear to be affecting healthy children, and as the father of a 2-year-old, I take solace in that. A recent study published in The Lancet medical journal, although small, also provides some hope that pregnant women are not transmitting the virus to their babies. As the husband of a very pregnant and understanding wife, this is also hopeful news.
But I offer this: You are not helpless. There are other things you can do to empower yourself. First and foremost, the public health measures being recommended to us – including hand washing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, really are the best means of protecting yourself from exposure. Prevention is and will remain the best medicine. However, many will still get infected despite adhering to these practices.
What else can you do to improve your odds of beating Covid-19 should you become infected? One key step: Maximize your health now, before you get sick. Studies have shown that those most at-risk are over 60 and/or have preexisting health problems like diabetes, obesity, cardiac disease, lung disease or generalized deconditioning.
If you have these (or other) medical problems, you can choose to be proactive and start addressing them with your fullest effort, starting today. You know that blood pressure medicine you never take because you hate taking pills and it makes you feel old? Start today. If you rarely, if ever, check your blood sugars and have allowed your diabetes to get out of control because the finger sticks and insulin shots are annoying – get your sugars under control starting today. Got asthma or lung disease? Begin consistently using your prescribed inhalers.
And, for goodness’ sake, stop smoking and vaping immediately. Commit to losing 10 pounds this month and force yourself to walk at least a mile every single day, starting today. Get your flu vaccine right now.
Even people without diagnosed medical problems should maximize their health. Exercise, weight loss, a healthy diet and good sleep are certainly beneficial to your body. Be empowered. By doing these simple things that your doctors have recommended to you for years, you have the power to improve your resilience. How much? It depends. But in the face of this virus, even a very small amount of improvement in your overall health could be the difference between mild or more severe symptoms, and for some, it could mean the difference between life and death.
You are not helpless. Do everything you can not to get the virus. But make sure that if you do, you are already at your strongest.
Be prepared, not scared.