More coronavirus news, and it doesn't look like it will stop coming for a while. Massachusetts has banned public gatherings of 250 people or more, and the Boston Marathon has been postponed. Dr. Nahid Bhadelia. She specializes in infectious diseases at Boston University's School of Medicine. She discussed the coronavirus pandemic with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Arun Rath.
Rath: It's been quite a week. It feels like every aspect of life is affected by this crisis - all the cancellations, school closings locally, and nationally a state of emergency. It feels like we're at a tipping point. What would you say?
Bhadelia: I think a couple of things have really changed. I think for many in the public health world and the medical world, the last few weeks have been alarming as we've been seeing a rising number of cases across the country and in a number of states. I think what really drove it home for people this week, those who weren't potentially paying attention to the news, were the school closings and common things that affect our everyday life, like the cancellation of March Madness. I think what's happening is people are realizing the impact this is going to have on the way we spend our free time, the way we interact with each other. For hospitals in Massachusetts, as you've been reading, there's an increasing number of cases, and for us it's really meant we're going from preparedness to a response phase and gearing up to get a sense of how we can be best prepared to take care of a rising number of patients were that to happen here.
Rath: One of the big stories of the week has been this frustration over local areas such as ours not having as many coronavirus tests as we need and not getting fast confirmation from the CDC. Right now on Friday, how is the situation locally regarding tests? Do you and other doctors have the tests you need?
Bhadelia: There are not nearly enough tests for those of us on the clinical side, for anybody who comes in to clinics, within our emergency rooms. Beyond that, I think we need to think about places where the most vulnerable populations live, like nursing homes and homeless shelters, where you might have a lot more people in one space. Ideally in a situation like this, you don't want just the capacity to test in in-patient clinics, and even in scenarios like nursing homes and homeless shelters, you want to be able to get a sense of how big this is. If there were enough tests we would deploy them to look like New York and Seattle, offering widespread drive-through testing and other mechanisms in that way. A, it serves to tell us where and how this disease is, and how widespread it is, and B, it's going to allay the public's fears, because right now there's this fear of, do I need to be afraid, where is it, am I scared, how do I take care of myself? And having the ability to test and tell people they don't have to worry will allay fears.
Rath: The president has now declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak and that will, I understand, release billions of dollars to state and local officials, to the response. Do you have a sense of the kind of ways those resources could be used, here on the ground level?
Bhadelia: First and foremost, we talked about the testing. The thought is that with this disease, 80% who get this will probably just have mild symptoms, but there's a percentage of people - the elderly, those with underlying conditions - that might need to be admitted. When that happens, that's still a big enough pool that we're expecting a larger number of people requiring in-patient services. So hospitals, clinics, all those spaces will need extra resources and manpower to provide the best care possible in that surge capacity scenario. Also, really investing in public education and really investing in a way to connect with our communities to answer questions and make sure the right information is out there rather than rumors and fear.
Rath: Do you worry about local hospitals handling an influx? We've seen in Italy, their wealthy regions with great hospitals getting overwhelmed.
Bhadelia: Only the future will tell. I think that most area hospitals have pandemic preparedness plans. They have experience through H1N1. We fortunately didn't have to face SARS here, but certainly with H1N1 and with Ebola, it's put us in a slightly better situation than we would've been in. What most hospitals have done with the advanced warning of what we're seeing from China and Italy and Seattle, is we're learning from those lessons and adapting our strategies. We hope we're going to be ahead of that, but I think only time and the number of cases we see are going to decide that.
Rath: If you think it's okay for people to get out and enjoy the beautiful weekend, can you give us a refresher on best practices, social distancing, the kind of things that people should be doing if they do go out?
Bhadelia: There are two big parts of this. One is to not gather in very large groups, and the reason why is you don't want to go into a large group and then have one person who has this potential illness, because then it becomes a herculean task to figure out who else might have been exposed to this. Large rooms with many, many people with one person maybe being sick raises that question. The second guidance is if you're sick, don't go to work or into public spaces, particularly those with a large group of people in them. Do not go to events or concerts or theaters or things like that if you're sick. Take care of yourself at home. If you have a family member who's sick, take care of them at home. The other thing to advise is that if you're in public, keep a six foot distance from those around you who you see may be sick. That gives you enough of a perimeter so that if they cough or sneeze, we know this virus is transmitted through those modes, and you may not be exposed to that.