Dr. Christopher Sanford, author of Staying Healthy Abroad, offers suggestions on how to stay informed and healthy amidst the spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).
The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician. To learn more about COVID-19, check out the links that Dr. Sanford recommends at the bottom of the post.
There is currently so much news about coronavirus that it is difficult to step back from the deluge of information and determine what it means. Possibly the optimal stance is to realize two truths, simultaneously, which are admittedly at odds with each another.
On one hand, the outbreak is undeniably a big deal. It is rapidly spreading around the world. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, characterized the current status of COVID-19 as “uncharted territory.” The virus could indeed spread to every country on Earth, infecting millions, and killing a large number of people. Frustratingly, with all the authorities and institutions giving recommendations, there is inevitably conflicting advice given to the public. And the first several deaths from COVID-19 in the US occurred in Washington State.
On the other hand, this illness does not herald the end of the world. Most people—whether or not they get this illness—will do well. Below are some answers and tips to address the most common questions and concerns about COVID-19.
Q: How should we react?
A: The benefits of closing schools and worksites is still being debated, but there are some best practices you can follow:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
- Keep your distance from people who are ill.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
The same measures that ensure long-term good health will reduce your risk of acquiring this illness, and, should you acquire it, of faring poorly.
Q: How do I boost my immune system?
A: The whole notion of boosting one’s immune system by a short-term measure is a myth.
The robustness of your immune system is tied to your overall, head-to-toe health. Hence, the same measures that are linked to cardiac health, brain health, cancer risk reduction, and longevity also are linked to immune function:
- Maintain a normal body weight
- Exercise regularly
- Don’t smoke
- Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables, low in red meat
- Drink moderately or not at all
- See a medical provider regularly for routine screening—blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.
There’s no shortcut.
Q: Should I avoid international travel?
A: Given the rapidly evolving nature of this pandemic, it is impossible to make a blanket recommendation regarding travel, and risk factors for acquiring this illness are still being determined. Each potential destination must be individually assessed with the latest information. The elderly, and those with chronic medical conditions are at elevated risk of severe illness.
Current destinations with heightened risk of community spread of coronavirus: China, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.
For some of these destinations, the US State Department gives more granular guidance. Regarding Italy, for example, the current travel advisory for the country as a whole is Travel Advisory Level 3: Reconsider travel. However, for Lombardy and Veneto (two of the twenty administrative regions of Italy), the Advisory Level is 4—Do not travel—due to both high levels of community transmission and imposition of local quarantine procedures.
Q: Where can I find reliable information on this pandemic?
A: The WHO is calling the current overabundance of information, online and elsewhere—of markedly variable reliability—an “infodemic.” Three solid, evidence-based sources are:
- CDC. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary.
- AAFP. American Academy of Family Physicians, Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). Information to educate your patients and prepare your practice teams.
- WHO. World Health Organization. Rolling updates on Coronavirus disease.
Bottom line: COVID-19 is a huge and significant pandemic. No one knows how many people it will affect. But most people will do well. I’ve seen both Shaun of the Dead and World War Z so I know the zombie apocalypse is coming. But this isn’t it.
Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.