The Coronavirus Advice a Doctor Gives Her Family

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One of the great luxuries of my life is having a mom who is a doctor: I know that there will always be someone willing to pick up the phone and tell me whether that weird rash means I’m going to die — someone who actually worries MORE about my well-being than I do. In a country where health care is too often shamefully inaccessible, mom-level extreme accessibility is a privilege for which I am very grateful … and never more so than in the midst of a public health crisis.

She’s a family practice doctor in the Bay Area, where some of the earliest U.S. coronavirus cases appeared. I gave her a call this past weekend to ask, Wait, how worried should I actually be? 

Below, the edited and condensed coronavirus advice you’d get from someone who deals with a lot of sick people, and who also loves you very much.

So, Mom, how worried should I be about the coronavirus?
Well, seriously, I don’t think you should be worried but you should be concerned — I think that’s a better word.

How are we distinguishing “worry” and “concern”?
“Worry” is people going out buying masks that aren’t going to help them. “Concerned” is saying, You know what? I should be doing this stuff anyway, so I’m going to do it. It’s flu season: This is not a great time to be going around it and forgetting all the general hygiene things. Like, wash your hands. I mean, right? People go around, they touch stuff, they have their hands on their face, and that’s all a problem in flu season. It’s a bigger problem with this.

I’m pretty good about washing my hands.
But keeping them away from your face? How are you with that?

I’m … okay at that. I would give myself, like, a B-minus at that.
You want to do better than that. Because even washing them, if you’ve got your hands around your face, you’re on subways, you’re touching surfaces — we don’t know exactly how long any of this nonsense stays alive on a surface right now. You’ve got to change that habit. And then the stuff that we should all do and people don’t do: If you’re coughing, cover your cough. If you’re coughing into a damn tissue, throw it away. And then wash your hands.

I keep seeing guides to handwashing. Am I supposed to be washing my hands a special way? What do you tell patients about how to wash their hands?
I will use Purell, flap my hands around — which my pediatric patients make fun of now — but it’s not effective if it’s still wet, so you want to wait on that. It needs to be dry. When you’re washing your hands, you need to go through the alphabet twice while you’re washing. It isn’t two seconds under water with soap and then you’re out, is the main thing.

I mean, I walk into a patient’s room, I head for the Purell. People stand up to shake my hand, and I say, Hold on, hold on, let’s get the bugs off and THEN shake hands. And then when I leave the room I use it; when I get to my office I use it. That’s in general, in a doctor’s office. But you want to get pretty close to that, I think. And you’re on public transportation, you’re doing all sorts of stuff, and you’re in these big open offices now, right? There’s no barriers. So I think you want to be a little bit concerned, because it’s going to be everywhere.

Should I be buying food?
I think that that’s reasonable. Have at least a few days [worth], because you don’t know what the impact is going to be, or where you might be able to go or want to go.

You remember SARS and MERS and H1N1 and avian flu and all those? How did those feel different?
I didn’t have colleagues who were already being watched at home because of exposure. It was more, This could happen, this could happen, this could happen. And this feels more like it IS happening. And we need to presume it’s going to be everywhere. It’s going to be more serious than the flu. Hopefully not as serious — and by serious, I mean deadly — as it first appeared in China. But that story isn’t written yet, because we’ve got to know more and see what happens.

If people aren’t doing the things they need to do to be a good citizen, then it does spread. You know, if they’re going out and buying up masks because I think that’s going to save something — well, then that creates problems down the line.

During regular flu season, we have boxes of masks everywhere for patients to put on, so they’re not sitting out there coughing. And you try to separate sick from not-sick as much as you can in a busy waiting room of a clinic. But there was a shortage, we weren’t getting supplies, and patients were taking a bunch. I’m walking into rooms now, patients aren’t necessarily masked, because they haven’t said they’re coughing — but they’re coughing.

It’s not going to be the coronavirus most times, but if we don’t have masks to put on then, it’s really just this whole cascade. You get more people that get knocked out — and for that person that does happen to have something more serious, if every paranoid, narcissistic patient decides they need to have a lifetime supply of masks, they’re not where you need them. Then it starts to affect health-care workers. Like, there’s three docs out of our system now. If that starts multiplying, it’s hard to have people to care for people.

The Coronavirus Advice a Doctor Gives Her Family