Tue Jul 7, 2020

Health leaders: ‘Assume everyone has it.’

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Jennifer Holcomb (upper left) interviews (clockwise) Kim Smith, Melvin Gerald and John Young about local COVID-19 impact and their advice to citizens.

“A lot of people you know may have the coronavirus and not know it,” said family physician Melvin Gerald, CEO of G&G Healthcare. “Just because they are your friend, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep your distance. Your family and your friends can be positive.”

“Assume that everyone has it,” said Columbus County Public Health Director Kim Smith. “You can be a carrier and not show signs or symptoms.”

Local professionals agree that slowing the spread of the sometimes deadly COVID-19 will depend on consistent personal action by everyone in the community.

Gerald and Smith, along with John Young, CEO of Columbus Regional Healthcare System, shared their most vital messages about COVID-19 prevention with the public Wednesday during a teleconference sponsored by the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.

Three Ws

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Smith listed what she called “the three Ws: Wear your mask. Wait six feet apart. Wash hands frequently.”

“I think everyone who goes out in public should wear a mask,” Gerald said. Whether a disposable mask or a cloth mask, “Any type will give you some protection. Cover your mouth and nose.”

Young pointed out that the danger goes both ways, and when laypeople wear basic masks in their daily lives, they are protecting others more than they protect themselves.

The hospital CEO compared coronavirus particles to an invisible cloud surrounding an infected person. The radius of the cloud is about six feet in which virus droplets may land on someone else before they drop to the ground. Wearing a mask “lowers the distance in which you can infect others.”

Young went as far as to say that, “I think it’s our social responsibility to wear masks in public until we get to a stable phase of this [pandemic.]”

‘Stay alive’

While “COVID-19 can involve anyone” of any age, race or background, Gerald warned that people with uncontrolled hypertension [high blood pressure] or diabetes are at the highest risk of dying from the disease. Other major risk factors are poor economic status, higher age, smoking and lung disease.

Young shared data from Jason Beck, the hospital’s chief operating officer, who said that, “The risk is real around those patients.” Columbus Regional has admitted 18 patients with COVID-19, and the ones with underlying health conditions  have died at a higher rate than those without.

Gerald said that, one day last week, he had suffered a headache, low fever and abdominal pain, causing him to suspect that he might have contracted the coronavirus. He knew he was in several high-risk groups. He got a test and went to bed.

“I’m old,” he said. “I’m black. I have hypertension, diabetes and prostate cancer. I’m in medicine. I’ve traveled out of state.” His test showed that he did not have the coronavirus, but he warned that, “People like me” should work to remain healthy, “or you can soon meet your maker.”

The physician, who is in his 50th year of practice, urged anyone with hypertension or diabetes to get their condition under control, “limit exposure and obey rules.”

Patients should not hesitate to call their doctors and request a telemedicine appointment, said Gerald. “We can help you stay alive.”

Q and A

Jennifer Holcomb, president of the chamber, relayed listener questions to the trio of guests about hospital resources, nursing home outbreaks, virus transmission through meats and the likely future course of the pandemic.

CRHS has not seen a surge in cases needing inpatient care, Young said, even though the health department reported a spike in positive test results last week. The hospital has 17 ventilators and currently has four COVID-19 patients on the sixth floor.

Smith described how health department nurses trace patient contacts to determine who needs to be tested, quarantined in case of infection or isolated if testing positive.

She emphasized that local nursing homes implemented “aggressive steps” to keep the virus out of their facilities before they were ordered to do so. She said that congregate living facilities in Columbus County are “giving excellent care” to residents and “have not dropped anything.” She and Young suggested that the county’s higher per-capita infection rate reflects more widespread testing here than in neighboring counties. None of the speakers on the webinar stated the number of tests performed here or the numbers in other counties.

Smith said she “would love to say we’ve slowed the virus. As a county, maybe we’ve done a 50 percent job. If we’d done 100 percent, we would not have had 11 deaths. Those 11 people didn’t need to die.”

The health director reported that five new cases had been confirmed before 8 a.m. Wednesday. Two more were added to that total by early afternoon. Smith was not acquainted with any of the 11 who had so far lost their lives to COVID-19, she said, “but their names are forever etched in my head.”

If a piece of meat has virus particles in or on it, the speakers said, cooking should destroy them. Gerald said that the person opening and preparing the meat could run some risk from skin contact with the virus, however, making hand-washing vital.

“It sounds easy to say stay home, stay apart, wash your hands and don’t touch your face,” Young said; in reality “it is hard. But it is working.” Columbus County is prepared for a surge in COVID-19 cases, “but if it doesn’t come, it’ll be because people are listening” and protecting themselves and those around them.

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