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The original item was published from 3/22/2020 4:56:05 PM to 6/28/2020 12:00:04 AM.

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Health Department

Posted on: March 22, 2020

[ARCHIVED] GUEST COLUMN: Merridith O'Leary, Director of Northampton Public Health

In the midst of a pandemic, every person has a role to play. We all must use basic health practices such as covering coughs and sneezes into the crook of the elbow, frequent hand washing, hand sanitizing and maintaining proper (6-feet minimum) social distance.

I hear a lot misunderstanding about some of the practices being urged in an effort to stem the spread of this life-threatening virus.

Social distancing, quarantine and isolation are not interchangeable terms. They are distinct strategies — each holding a very important place within a public health framework — to keep the greatest number of people as safe as we can amid a pandemic like the one we face now.

Social distancing, a sound strategy that requires the cancellation of events and other gatherings that draw crowds, aims to help stop or slow the spread of the Coronavirus to a pace that will let our health care system care for patients over time. It means deliberately increasing the physical space between people to at least 6 feet to prevent the spread of a virus to reduce the chance of passing along or becoming infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Other effective examples are working from home, closing schools, switching to online classes, visiting loved ones only through electronic devices, canceling and postponing conferences and large meetings.

Quarantine, sometimes referred to as self-quarantine, is recommended for people who have been exposed to the novel Coronavirus now at risk of coming down with COVID-19. It requires people to stay home, unless there’s a need to go to an urgent medical appointment, to stay 6 feet away from other people, including family and household members, and to have no visitors. If you are under quarantine, you can get fresh air and exercise, as long as you maintain social distance.

Quarantine also means:

  • Standard hygiene and washing hands frequently;
  • Not sharing items like towels and utensils;
  • Using a separate bedroom if possible;
  • Wearing disposable gloves to handle any items containing an infected person’s bodily fluid;
  • Other members of your household should monitor their temperatures and watch for other symptoms;
  • Quarantines should last for 14 days from the date of the last exposure, or if there is a negative COVID-19 test result.

Isolation is another important public health strategy used to help stop the spread of disease. It works by separating people who are actively sick with a communicable illness from people who are not sick. Hospitals use isolation for patients with infectious tuberculosis, for example — and when possible, they are using it for people admitted with COVID-19.

For people with confirmed COVID-19, isolation is necessary. It can take place at home, at a hospital or in another type of care facility. It involves separating the sick person from everyone else in their home or facility. It also means:

  • The other people who live with you should be under quarantine;
  • The sick person should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom if possible;
  • Gloves, tissues, masks and other trash should be put into a bag, closed and put with other households trash;
  • Using separate towels, plates and utensils;
  • Frequently laundering clothes, bed linens and towels;
  • Cleaning bathrooms daily with a disinfectant using gloves;
  • Cleaning areas known as high-touch surfaces every day;
  • Cleaning counters, door knobs, bathroom fixtures and cellphone after contact with a sick person;
  • Monitoring symptoms;
  • Seeking prompt medical attention if symptoms worsen (difficulty breathing);
  • Before leaving the house for care, put on a mask and notify the provider, emergency room or dispatcher the person might have COVID-19.

Another common question I hear is what to do if someone they work with — or see at church, school, yoga or the gym — is now in quarantine for suspected COVID-19.

That depends on the type of contact. Scientists say COVID-19 is spread between people through contact with droplets that emerge in coughs or sneezes or contact with surfaces (tables, counters, door knobs) an infected person has touched or coughed on.

If there was limited contact, there is little chance of infection, but pay attention to potential symptoms. If you’ve had close contact, contact your health care practitioner for guidance about possible self-quarantine.

We are in a public health catastrophe in which misinformation and uninformed opinion could lead to devastating unintended consequences. As Northampton’s health director, I feel it is my obligation to correct some of these false claims (without repeating errors), but responding from a public health framework.

Is social distancing an overreaction? Absolutely not! We are in the middle of a public health crisis. The goal is to slow the spread of the virus so we can preserve our health care system and health care workers on the front lines. We need to save their lives so they can continue helping to save our lives.

Is it acceptable to have the new normal be to meet only virtually for public education? Online learning has been taking place for long enough that we know it’s effective. This is a small price to pay to keep everyone as safe as possible.

How do we know if these measures are created out of hyperbole and hysteria and ensuring public health?

It is not hysteria. Public health professionals urge everyone to take responsibility for what we can all do to flatten the curve of this pandemic in our country. Flattening the curve requires implementing the strategies described in this column to slow the rate of infection so hospitals have room, supplies and providers to care for all of the patients who need care.

Another question that arises for me: Is there hope?

A pandemic can seem overwhelming. But every one of us can help slow the transmission of this virus. So yes, there is hope.

Merridith O’Leary is the director of the Department of Public Health for the city of Northampton. 

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