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Coronavirus essentials for families

Colorado is currently ranked among the top 5 in total cases of COVID-19 (“coronavirus disease 2019”, caused by a novel coronavirus) nationwide, and the Denver Mayor has just announced there are to be no gatherings of more than 50 people. What is going on?  How do you say safe and fed? Why is it worse than the flu? I am finding there is a lot of misinformation out there, even among otherwise well-informed folks, which alarmed me as a biologist and researcher. Thus, I have compiled the key information being provided by the Center of Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other highly reliable sources for the COVID-19 pandemic.  A pandemic means that a disease is spreading in multiple countries at the same time. Here are the top 9 things you need to know (with links to sources that have more information):

  1. Can children get it? According to the CDC, children can get COVID-19 but are not at lower risk to contract it than adults. So far, nearly all reported cases in children and teens have been mild. It is most dangerous for older adults and those with chronic health issues such as heart or respiratory problems to get the virus. Thus, the primary concern regarding healthy children is to keep them from spreading the virus to those more at risk of dying from the disease.  See this link for risk assessment information from the CDC. Primary symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
  2. How contagious is it? One of the country’s top experts on viruses, Marc Lipsitch from Harvard University, estimates that 40-70% of the world’s population will ultimately become infected with COVID-19. It can remain communicable on surfaces from hours to days. However, according to the CDC, cases with known causes can be traced to contact between individuals via “respiratory droplets” transmitted when individuals are within 6 feet of each other, hence the importance of “social distancing.” Note that this is not the same as an “airborne” illness like measles, which can hang in the air for long periods.
  3. Why all of the closures? The goal right now is to slow this progress so that our medical system isn’t completely overwhelmed. If you or your family needs serious medical attention, you will want to be able to see a doctor! Slowing the spread with social distancing is what will “flatten the curve”— that is, we may have a similar number of cases in the end, but if they don’t all happen at once, then the system is more likely to be able to take care of us when we need it. Research has shown that the faster social distancing was enforced by officials in various locations for the 1918 flu pandemic, the more lives were saved.
  4. How do we kill it? Fortunately, it is easy to kill COVID-19 on surfaces using a solution of 1/3c bleach in 1 gallon of water. Vinegar will not kill this virus. As most folks know by now, you should wash hands by rubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. Visibly dirty hands should always be cleaned with soap and water. Additional instructions on cleaning from the CDC can be found here.
  5. Should I stockpile supplies? If you are exposed to the virus, then you should stay at home and practice strict social distancing for 14 days. For a typical 4-person family, this would require 7-10 rolls of toilet paper. By some estimates, it would take a family of 15 to get through one 30-roll Costco multipack of rolls during such a quarantine. And you don’t need much bleach either (see #4 above). Most Americans already have enough food in the pantry and freezer to last two weeks without a grocery trip. However, for those families that don’t have enough food, particularly with the school closures, Denver public schools are still providing free meals. This link provides an interactive map of all food distribution sites in the Denver area. This is also a good time to reach out via Nextdoor or other social media, email, or phone to neighbors to offer support (or toilet paper!).
  6. What do I do if I think someone in my family has it? We are being told by the CDC and others to call our primary care doctor (don’t go in person) for directions regarding testing and care. Do not go to an emergency room or to you doctor’s office unless instructed to do so. Obviously, if someone needs immediate, life-saving care (such as difficulty breathing), call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room. In most cases, there isn’t much more they can do for COVID-19 than you can do at home, so we want to make sure not to overwhelm the healthcare system or spread the virus (see #3, above). See this CDC page for other instructions, such as to wear a facemask if you think you have it (others who are not trained medical professionals are not advised to wear them).
  7. Why is COVID-19 worse than the flu? There are currently many fewer cases and deaths due to COVID-19 than to the flu, and for many who will get it, the symptoms it will be milder, leading many to wonder what the big deal is. However, coronavirus is both more contagious and more deadly than the flu. This is in part because this is the first time this coronavirus has infected humans, therefore everyone is equally vulnerable to it. This is in contrast with the flu, where previous exposure (and vaccines) provide some protection. Studies suggest that it is at least ten times deadlier than the flu (0.1% vs. >1%), with mortality rates as high as 14% for people over 80. With current estimates of spread, this could translate to 170,000 deaths over the course of the year from COVID-19, which is five to ten times as many deaths as we see from the flu. Finally, we have lots of experience with the flu and so know things like that the season will come to an end by late spring; we do not have such experience or knowledge about coronaviruses.
  8. How do I stay informed of the latest information on COVID-19?
    1. The Denver Post has a Facebook Page on the epidemic.
    1. The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment has information here.
    1. This is a site with frequently updated information about the number of cases. It’s interesting because it was created by a teenager in Seattle.
    1. This is the CDC’s portal of information about COVID-19.
    1. If you have questions, many news sources have hotlines you can call, including Channel 7: 303-832-0676
  9. How does my family stay sane with no school? This can be a stressful time for your family. Many places, including Denver Recreation Centers are closed (except for providing food). Here are some resources and ideas:
    1. An article by Liz Faria on how to “not lose your mind” during school closings. Her most important advice is to keep to as normal and consistent a schedule as possible to help kids feel safe and calm.
    1. Don’t forget to get outside! The weather has been beautiful, and it is safe to go to parks and school yards so long as you practice social distancing. Some recommendations include Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Bluff Lake Nature Center, and Plains Conservation Center.
    1. As of this posting, the Denver Zoo, Hudson Gardens, and Denver Botanic Gardens (*update this has now closed) are still selling admission online with timed tickets.
    1. Check out our great state parks: Some recommended by friends on my academic-mamas listserve include First Creek Park in Green Valley Ranch (a cool “nature park”), Bear Creek Greenbelt (has prairie dogs!), Roxborough and El Dorado Canyon. It looks like kids’ programming at these parks has been cancelled, but as of this posting, visitor centers with flush toilets remain open and both have lots of fun wildlife info for kids. Bring your antibacterial wipes and enjoy.
    1. Museums all over the world can be visited online.
    1. Be a citizen scientist: you can identify plants with iNaturalist, or even help map light pollution. These observations become data that are used by real scientists (like me!).
    1. Stay social: Call that out-of-town relative you haven’t seen in a while, use video conferencing to talk with friends, and consider other ways of staying connected. Converse with your neighbors over the fence or between porches. Social media can be an important tool, but is also linked with depression, so is best to be used in smaller doses.
    1. Read! Although libraries are closed, you can still access eBooks and audible books from Denver Public Libraries online.

The bottom line is, this virus is going to change our lives for a while yet, but whether that means months or years is yet unclear. In the meantime, we need to do our part to keep the rate of transmission down while trying to keep our sanity.