A Perspective on the Coronavirus Outbreak from a Public Health Nerd

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Church Without Walls Berkeley is taking precautions to minimize the possible spread of the Corona virus (Covid-19) in our community. 

Currently, on Sundays, we are no longer meeting in a larger group at Berkeley Arts Magnet, but will instead be streaming a modified service via Zoom. Please contact Anne@nowalls.org to join our streaming sign up list, and for more resources, check out this blog post containing practical heath tips and links to other online resources. 

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A perspective on the Coronavirus outbreak from a public health nerd (with references). 

What is Coronavirus and COVID-19? Coronaviruses have been around for a while and are among the usual cold viruses that typically circulate throughout the country and the world. Last December, a new Coronavirus strain was discovered in China that is spreading globally (100+ countries as of this week) and has been named “Coronavirus Disease 2019” (shortened to COVID-19). 

Why the big fuss? As of Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that over 110,000 people globally have contracted COVID-19, with mortality rates of  1- 3%, according to various studies and reports. The outbreak is now considered a global pandemic, which is not a technical term as much as a signal for governments and communities to take action as COVID-19 spreads. More severe illness and higher mortalities have been documented for COVID-19 thus far, especially among older and chronically ill populations, compared to the typical seasonal viral infections. However, it is possible that these more concerning rates will decline over time with improved testing and investigation, since many people infected with COVID-19 have had no symptoms or developed mild illness only (and were not tested early on nor clinically treated). Basically, it is too early to tell whether COVID-19 is an especially serious infection or more similar to a typical flu virus, so the global public health community is responding aggressively as if it is serious in order to contain the spread, and rightfully so.  Please support the intensive efforts of our public health agencies and follow their recommendations.   

So what does it mean for us?  In the U.S., 900+ cases of COVID-19 have been reported by the CDC and 29 people have died as of today. Our overall risk of contracting COVID-19 is considered low for now based on current incidence and prevalence. In comparison, there have been over 34 million flu infections so far in U.S., and over 20,000 people have died from the flu just this season. So we are still much more likely to get the flu (as many of us have already experienced this season). Both flu and COVID-19 share similar symptoms: fever, cough, shortness of breath, body aches. And it is possible for us to feel healthy and be infected with either. Since both are more or less transmitted the same way – through droplets in the air and direct physical contact – the most practical and conscientious response to the COVID-19 outbreak is to be consistent and thorough in the basic preventive actions to curb the spread of cold and flu viruses, namely: 

  • Washing hands with soap and water. (Alcohol-based hand sanitizer helps too, but soap and water is best) 
  • Avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or your elbow. (NOT your hands)
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
  • Staying away from work, school or other people if you become sick with respiratory symptoms like fever and cough.
  • Following guidance from public health officials. (A couple of good sites for regular updates are the www.cdph.ca.gov and www.cdc.gov/coronavirus websites and well as local city/county sites like City of Berkeley.) 

One nice graphic for kids illustrating many of these key points is here (c/o Brittany Chen). As of this week, CA Department of Public Health also recommends that older adults and individuals with compromised immunity or chronic conditions (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, lung disease) take the following precautions: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and stay away from large gatherings and crowds.
  • Stay home as much as possible. Consider ways of getting food brought to your house through family, social, or commercial networks.

In addition, more public agencies are asking people more broadly to avoid mass gatherings (>1000 attendees), and many organizations are cancelling conferences or asking workers and students to stay at home and work remotely, as precautionary measures. Schools in areas with known community transmission (i.e., not from travelling abroad or family member who travelled abroad) may be closed temporarily. Also,  there are recommendations limiting travel on cruises or to those countries with larger outbreaks (e.g., China, Italy, Iran, South Korea) These guidelines can and will change over time depending on the course of the outbreak

As for church, the CWOW elder team and staff will implement changes to incorporate preventive actions into church services (e.g., reducing risk of viral transmission during communion) and possibly develop contingency plans in case we need to mobilize in a bigger way as a church community.  If you or any family members are experiencing any respiratory symptoms, please stay home from church activities to focus on healing. If you are anxious about COVID-19 or the flu, you are welcome to stay home and participate remotely [http://wavve.link/cwow].     

Hopefully, this outbreak spurs us to be more vigilant and thoughtful neighbors and community members who curb the spread of respiratory illnesses overall, especially to protect our most vulnerable populations (elderly, chronically ill, young children).   

Lastly, as I reflect on this growing outbreak and flu season, I am reminded of the great need for myself and perhaps many of us to re-focus on sabbath and rest. “Staying away from work, school” when we are sick sounds like a straight-forward enough recommendation, but I doubt that it’s easy for many of us to follow – it isn’t for me – and it is not a strong value of our society. (A not-fun fact: In most states, paid sick leave is not mandated by law as it is in CA, and so workers are often forced to choose between having income and their health, not to mention the risk of infecting others.)  The compulsion to strive feels ever-present – to be productive in our workplaces, our households, our relationships, and even in our free time, in the form of enviable adventures and Insta-worthy outings. I wonder what it would look like for more of us to go against the cultural grain and exert influence in our schools, work teams, volunteer organizations and churches to normalize activities like using sick days and mental health days when we need them, asking for help to cover meetings or shifts, keeping the kids out of school to fully recover and play, relaxing or taking walks on weekends, staying at home for solitude and prayer (or chicken soup and Netflix) – all without guilt or apology but with grace and freedom.                

Carol Kong Darden

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