For most of us around the world, the last six months have been, to say the least, difficult and confusing. And now many of us are experiencing “pandemic fatigue.” As a physician, I’m frequently asked by family, friends and colleagues, “How are you staying healthy during the pandemic?”
First, let’s set aside the politics of the issue. In a presidential election year, it is no surprise that issues around the pandemic have become political. Perhaps the surprise is how political every aspect has become. I prefer to look at the evolving facts.
As a physician and scientist, my personal decisions and recommendations to friends, families and patients are based on science. While the knowledge and science on this pandemic have continued to evolve, there are some things that we know. We should use these facts, and the recommendations that flow from them, as a frame of reference for making good decisions for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation and our world.
What do we know?
We need to accept that we are in an international pandemic and that the U.S. is not faring well. We will likely far exceed 200,000 U.S. deaths in the coming months. That is like a city the size of Madison simply disappearing. We need to accept that our world has changed. The pandemic will not simply disappear. We need to fight it with good public health approaches, and eventually with a vaccine.
The virus has both short- and long-term effects. While the majority of cases are mild, we are seeing unfortunate lingering effects. These include cardiac problems like myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), breathing problems similar to asthma and sleep disorders. We shouldn’t be surprised. Viruses can affect most parts of the body. For example, the 1917 influenza pandemic left survivors at risk for Parkinson’s disease. We should be vigilant in the coming months and years, to gain the best scientific understanding of the long-term effects of COVID-19.
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What should we do? The answers are pretty simple. Stay cautious, stay practical, stay healthy. There are some specific things we can do that significantly increase our odds of staying safe.
• Wear a mask — this is our very best defense against the spread of the virus. Remember, when you are wearing a mask correctly (over your mouth and nose), you protect yourself. But most importantly you are protecting others! If you have been infected with COVID, you can spread the disease before you even know that you are infected. Wearing a mask protects others. It is the right thing to do. None of us enjoys this aspect of the pandemic, but we need to stay safe. Look at it this way: Would you jump into the deep water to save your child? Would run into a burning room to save your parent? There is no guarantee of success, but would you try? Of course. Now, would you wear a mask to save someone?
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• Keep a safe distance. Physical distancing (at least 6 feet) protects you against the virus. We would all like to be closer to friends and family. But right now, we need to keep a safe distance.
• Wash your hands. Good handwashing, or use of alcohol gel, is a great way to keep from spreading the virus.
• Take care of your mental and physical health. In this difficult time, it is more important than ever to eat a healthy diet, get enough rest, exercise as your health allows, avoid excessive alcohol intake and seek help if you are having significant anxiety, depression or thoughts of suicide. Call your providers, go online for counseling or take advantage of suicide hotlines. Most providers offer telehealth appointments, allowing access to better mental health right in your own home. During this time, it’s important to take care of our personal and family health issues.
• PLEASE get your flu shot! Influenza is a serious illness that kills about 40,000 Americans each year. It is preventable with an easy vaccination, which is now available. And don’t forget about regular childhood and adult immunizations. During the pandemic, many families have fallen behind on vaccinations.
As the weather gets colder, and we grow ever more fatigued with this pandemic, it is easy to let our guards down. But now is when we need to stand firmly against this virus, and be safe. This is a fight worth fighting. Let’s work on this together and get to a healthier place for 2021.
Dr. Nick Turkal is the former CEO of Aurora Health Care. He recently headed the efforts for the McCormick Place Field Hospital in Chicago. He is a practicing physician in the Milwaukee area.
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