Coronavirus: Why School Closure is Necessary

In light of yesterday’s decision by Governor Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Health to close schools in certain counties to help prevent the spread of the new Coronavirus, I’ve asked Dr. Kevin Flinn, a Hospitalist at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock (who also just happens to be my husband) to give his opinion on why social distancing is important right now. This was his response:

“So, firstly a small disclaimer: I am not an Infectious Diseases specialist, an epidemiologist, or a public health official. I am board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics, and have worked as an inpatient hospitalist taking care of the sickest of the sick patients for my entire career. But I think basically any MD would reasonably agree with the few suppositions I’m about to make regarding COVID-19.

Advice first, in case you get bored and don’t read all the way to the end: Most importantly–do not panic! Do not hoard supplies, be it toilet paper, hand sanitizer, food products, or anything else. Don’t spread disinformation on social media. Listen to doctors and public health officials (NOT politicians). The wave of “social distancing” that we’re seeing in the last week is NOT about complete containment. Because of the nature of this virus (more on this below) that’s basically impossible. This is all about “flattening the curve” (google it–the New York Times article is excellent). If you’re not ill, don’t feel like you need to avoid all contact with the human race. You can still shop and work (depending on your job). But, if you ARE ill, please stay home. And if it’s only a mild illness, it’s probably best you even avoid doctor’s offices and emergency rooms, because they’re about to be overwhelmed, both with the sick and with the “worried well.” Try not to add to that problem. If you feel like you need to see your doctor–call first.   Reserve emergency rooms for true emergencies (if you have to ask yourself “is this a true medical emergency?”, it’s probably not), and there are Urgent Care centers everywhere that can often be helpful in less-than-life-threatening situations.

Wash your hands. Use soap and water. Hand sanitizer is great–but specifically regarding COVID-19, neither will actually “kill” the virus. It’s more about getting it off of you, and down the drain. You can imagine which of these two methods does better with this goal in mind. Scrub vigorously, wash under your nails, and do so for at least 20 seconds (pick a song to hum–the internet is positively AWASH with suggestions). Advice to “not touch your face” is really not possible as a general rule. We all do it, and we all do it A LOT. But, if you can simply try to not do so when in public, and after having touched anything that could be infected until you can wash your hands again, you’ll at least decrease your risk.

And, more to the absolute bottom line point, statistically whomever is reading this, it’s actually not about YOUR risk. If you’re not eligible for Social Security or have serious chronic medical problems (or both), your statistical risk of a serious infection even if infected with COVID-19 is very, very low. But there are a lot of people out there who do fit these criteria, and they’re why we’re trying so hard to “flatten the curve.” So even if you are low risk, your job is still to minimize the risk of further spread.     

Since this virus is “novel” (brand new), immunity is going to be low. So a lot (like a LOT) of people are going to contract it. But again, a large majority of people will have minor or no symptoms whatsoever. But let’s say 150 million Americans catch it. The currently reported 3-4% fatality rate is likely going to fall, so let’s even err conservatively with an assumption of 1% of those 150 million become “seriously” ill. That’s still 1.5 million dangerously sick, mostly older patients who will need high level care. If those 1.5 million come in to the hospital over 3-4 MONTHS instead of 3-4 WEEKS, we can hopefully avoid overloading those institutions that care for critically ill patients. (And not just the doctors. We’re only a small piece of the puzzle. Imagine how many nurses, techs, respiratory therapists and other support staff it takes to keep a busy hospital running? And in just Little Rock proper, we have three large hospitals that are staring down the barrel of not only Central Arkansas’s population. Smaller hospitals in other parts of the state refer to St. Vincent, Baptist, and UAMS for anyone severely ill.)  

I get it. It’s irritating. My kid is out of school unexpectedly, too. My travel plans are disrupted. I’m going to miss the NCAA tournament more than most, I assure you. And if “social distancing” works appropriately, it will all look like a big overreaction. But, if you compare that to the alternative, which is extremely frightening, I’ll take some minor inconveniences any day.

Wash your hands. Don’t go to work if you’re sick. Listen to reputable sources only. And don’t panic!”

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