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COVID-19: Seeking care and preventing the spread

Michael Gerst, DO

There are still many unknowns about COVID-19 and this is a time of uncertainty for everyone, including front line health care workers and public health experts. This is a complex epidemic, so we continue to see evolution in approaches to providing care with a focus on safety. No one has experienced this type of pandemic before; however, UPMC is prepared if you should need medical care.

When to Seek Care for COVID-19

The symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe and are similar to other respiratory illnesses such as the flu and common cold.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can appear anywhere from two days to two weeks after exposure to the virus. Symptoms include:

— Fever

— Cough

— Shortness of breath

If you suspect you have COVID-19 and aren’t having high fever or breathing problems, please call your primary care physician. Doing this from home is best for all and limits spread of any infection; if needed, your provider can guide you safely to the next care site.

If you have breathing trouble, go to your emergency department – hospitals are ready to provide care. Do not go to the emergency department for a simple cough or mild fever.

Testing is the only method to confirm whether a person has COVID-19. Due to limited testing resources, not everyone who wants a test can get one. Tests are being coordinated by primary care providers and infectious disease specialists so that patients exhibiting symptoms and who are at the highest risk due to exposure will be tested.

Do Your Part

The major concern with social interactions is that most germs are spread by hand contact; all of us touch our face hundreds of times a day without being aware of it; and viruses can persist on non-porous surfaces (like elevator buttons and door handles) for many hours. We are fundamentally social, and it’s very difficult for us to maintain isolation. The best way to reduce spread and flatten the curve is to limit the number of people interacting and try to keep 6 feet from each other outside of our own homes.

People can be infected, and the evidence suggests they can transmit the virus, a couple of days before they feel sick at all themselves. Children have milder symptoms, or even no symptoms, and yet can be infected and transmit. The best way to protect our most vulnerable fellow citizens and loved ones is to maintain the social distancing measures. We have evidence from prior pandemics going back to the 1918 influenza, and evidence from other countries now dealing with COVID-19. These measures work to reduce spread and flatten the curve.

Additional ways you can lower your risk of being exposed to COVID-19:

— Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you need to care for someone who is sick, take precautions such as hand hygiene and other preventative recommendations as guided by your provider, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).

— Wash your hands, especially before touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Use soap and water, and wash for at least 20 seconds. Washing your hands is especially important before eating, after using the bathroom, and after blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable.

— Cover your cough or sneeze or use a tissue and immediately throw it away. Remember to wash your hands.

— Clean and disinfect regularly used objects and surfaces.

Because the virus is spread from person-to-person, it is important that you avoid close contact with others and abide by social distancing guidelines. The more you do today to stop the spread of the disease, the more lives you will save.

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Dr. Michael Gerst is the chairman of emergency services for UPMC in the Susquehanna region and the medical director of the Emergency Department at UPMC Williamsport. For more information on COVID-19, visit UPMC.edu/COVID19.

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