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Science

Coronavirus: Don’t Panic

As SARS-CoV2 blossoms into a global pandemic, friends and family members have been asking for my advice. Of course I recommend listening to “This Week in Virology,” where the virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, have been major topics on most recent episodes, but that alone won’t fill the entire need. Not everyone has time for a two-hour weekly podcast, and it’s not frequent enough to keep up with all of the latest developments. While I’m hesitant to advise anyone on how to prepare for the next few weeks, I can offer some suggestions based on what this virologist is doing.

Yesterday, for example, I went out and bought a week’s worth of groceries – not as any kind of emergency preparedness thing, just because it was Tuesday, and that’s what I usually do at that point in the week. I have a few N95 masks around the house already: one in the garage toolbox, one in my basement workshop, and I think there’s one in the shed near the mower. Along with ear and eye protection, they’re basic pieces of shop safety gear. I’ve no intention of wearing them in public, though.

I do have some dedicated emergency supplies. There are first aid kits in both car trunks and in the house, fire extinguishers scattered around everywhere, flashlights, a few gallons of water stored away, and some camping gear on hand. Everyone in the family also got a flu shot this year. No, it won’t protect us from COVID-19, but it does lower our risk of getting sick from influenza virus, which has already killed thousands of Americans this season.

And that’s about it.

None of that means that I’m unconcerned. We are facing a real public health threat of unknown severity, our country’s healthcare, social support, and scientific systems are reeling from three years of sustained assault, the national-level response to the pandemic is being run by a science-denying ideologue, and early delays in testing mean we don’t even know how far the virus has already spread. What data we have suggest that COVID-19 will kill a lot of people, and mitigating it will entail a lot of social disruption. Think school closings, business shut-downs, overcrowded hospitals, nursing home quarantines, travel restrictions, and canceled flights. Some of that has already started; I expect more.

So what does one do to prepare for that? As I implied above, I’m preparing as I would for any emergency. My plan, such as it is, is to remain as flexible as possible, adapt as events unfold, and if I can, try to help friends, family, and neighbors. People who are old or already ill might want to avoid large public gatherings for the next few weeks. A pandemic is a “shelter in place” kind of emergency.

I also recommend a news diet. Credible sources have already posted some sensible guidelines for handling the current situation. Obsessively tracking the latest coronavirus news won’t change the validity of any of that advice. So don’t do it. And if you needed any more reasons to avoid the toxic stew of social media, this is a great one. Whatever panicky screeds your “friends” are reflexively regurgitating into your Facebook and Twitter feeds are probably bullshit. Ignore them, or better still, just stop visiting those sites.

Finally, wash your hands, and force any children in your care to wash theirs. Yes, it really works.