Pandemic Lessons: We understand the virus. Now how can we avoid it?

Masks are near-ubiquitous in schools, as in this second grade classroom at St. Gregory the Great Elementary School.
John Hickey

Tim O’Shei

When the pandemic was declared in March and everyday life shut down, did you think normalcy would return by summer? Fall? Certainly, by 2021?

Whether you thought it or hoped for it, we’re not. Nor will we be, by all expert projections, for several months or longer. While vaccines slowly roll out, medical workers – the same ones getting those first doses – are enduring intense pressure. People are still dying at an alarming rate — there were 16 deaths in Erie County alone on New Year’s Eve and more than 1,200 in the county since the pandemic started.

New York has lost nearly 38,000 people statewide. How big is that? Imagine KeyBank Center with a sold-out crowd – and then double it.

“It’s very sad, because what we’re seeing now is a bit different from what we saw in the spring,” said Dr. Lucy Campbell, a pulmonologist Buffalo General Medical Center who oversees the hospital’s medical intensive care unit.

We know more about the virus – and how to avoid it – than we did in spring. That makes for less-acceptable explanations for why so many people are getting sick. In this “Pandemic Lessons,” we draw on previous installments to answer essential questions as we head into a new year of our ongoing battle:

What is different now?

Ten months ago, Campbell and other critical care doctors, pharmacists, respiratory therapists and nurses saw patients – most of them older – who were infected back when the virus was completely novel. People knew little about it. Protective gear was in short supply. The stay-home pleas from public health officials were clear – but little else was.

That’s no longer true. Masks are readily available, and the scientific value of wearing one is established. We understand how the virus spreads most readily: Indoors, through the air, between people who are unmasked. Applying that knowledge is our weak point, and it’s translating into a heartbreaking scenario that plays on repeat: A grandma or grandpa contracts the virus at a dinner with younger family members, then comes to her MICU – and dies.

“It really seems like a lot of these cases could have been prevented,” Campbell said.

What are the keys to prevention?

If you’re going to socialize, do it outdoors – and even if you’re far away from others, keep the mask on. That may seem unnecessary, but it’s commonplace in New York City. “If you’re not wearing a mask, it’s perceived as weird,” said Narmeen Karzoun, who works as a marketing manager in New York and grew up outside Buffalo.

Despite being the most densely populated metropolitan area in the country, and after a hellish pandemic spring, much of New York City has done a relatively good job containing the spread. Manhattan’s test positive rates are consistently among the lowest in the state. There are many overlapping reasons why this is true, and it’s not solely attributable to people wearing masks outdoors. But it signifies a cautious and considered New York City state of mind that spills over into other parts of life and translates into lower virus spread.

Western New Yorkers would be wise to emulate it.

What about indoors?

Here’s are some facts, tips and reminders:

  • If you insist on mixing households indoors, view it like drinking alcohol: The healthiest choice is not to do it. But if you’re going to indulge, use moderation and caution. For indoor socializationwith people from outside your home, that means wearing a mask – even with family. Remember that having a close or blood relationship with someone doesn’t make them less likely to infect you. Masks layer on protection – and if you need proof that they work, consider the lack of outbreaks in schools, where masks are near-ubiquitous.
  • Open the windowsto keep air flowing and break up those aerosols. It will be chilly, but safer. Investing in a portable air cleaner with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter is smart. A carbon dioxide sensor helps, too. Although it won’t clean the air, it will alert you if ventilation is low and aerosols may be gathering, since we exhale carbon dioxide.
  • Get a humidifierand set it between 40% and 60%, which is “the sweet spot” where the virus “decays quickly,” says Dr. Lindsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. Another scientist, Dr. Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University, points out that “humidifiers also help by increasing your body’s ability to defend itself.”

We can see an end to this pandemic. When that comes, what is a permanent change we would be wise to make?

Adopt a healthy aversion to germs.

Dr. Graham Snyder, chief epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, hopes we become a more “germaphobic society.” Snyder has long washed his hands every time he comes home, because he likes to keep his house “a pathogen-free space.” “I do infection prevention,” Snyder acknowledges, “so my mind is in this space all the time.”

But we’re all in infection-prevention mode now, and Snyder hopes we act like it.

“Stay home if you’re sick,” said Snyder, whose work has included consulting with the National Comedy Center to develop its Covid-19 protocols. “One aspect about American culture that’s pretty common is we’re hard workers. We work hard. The expectation is you pour your life into your work, you work long hours, and you keep working even if you’re sick. That’s a problem in health care. It’s a problem in business. It’s a problem everywhere. So I hope that we’ve changed a little bit in that approach.”

Mental health has been an issue during the pandemic. How big a problem will that be going forward?

Huge. Multiple studies have revealed an increase in anxiety and depression, with post-traumatic stress disorder – especially for health care workers – likely to emerge later. Every negative aspect of this pandemic – from job loss to isolation to fear and deaths – feeds into it. Keep on alert for it in the people around you because if something seems emotionally off-kilter, help is accessible.

“When we’re faced as human beings with such uncertainty, and being forced to adjust and adapt to something that we have never gone through, for most of us, it really causes an increase in anxiety,” said Megan Quinn, a licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health department manager at Community Health Center of Buffalo, where the availability of telehealth appointments, coupled with the need for support, have doubled therapists’ caseloads. “The uncertainty, the fear. The impact of, ‘Who do we listen to? Where do we get our information? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Where do we go from here? How do we protect our families?’”




Note: Do you have a topic or question you’d like to see explored in an upcoming installment of “Pandemic Lessons?” Send it to Tim O’Shei at [email protected] or via Twitter (@timoshei). 


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