With recent cases in Rhode Island and Washington state, coronavirus disease (COVID-19) will eventually reach us.
“It’s not a matter of if this comes to Cape Cod, it’s a matter of when,” said Sean O’Brien, Barnstable County Dept. of Health and Environment director. “People have to prepare themselves.”
Eastham health and environment director Jane Crowley said the risk is “very low,” but the situation is rapidly evolving.
Wellfleet Elementary School Nurse Claudia Cope pointed out that the school just dealt with a flu outbreak starting in November and lasting through February. Up to 20 percent of students were absent at times.
O’Brien believes the Cape has the resources to deal with an outbreak. “Could we run into some concerns?” he asked. “Absolutely.” He named the number of hospital beds as one concern.
There will likely also be shortages in medical supplies. “We’ve got to hope our pharmacies, our doctor’s offices, will still be able to get these things,” he said. “This is also a part of being prepared and having some supplies in your house.”
One thing you don’t need is an N95 mask. These are used by first responders because they can block small particles, like the virus that causes COVID-19, from entering the respiratory system. Because others are buying them up, there is currently a shortage of these masks worldwide.
Cope said that she has been asking herself whether she has enough supplies stocked in the health office. Most ingredients for everyday drugs like acetaminophen are manufactured in China, so global supply may be affected.
Spread and Prevention
In rural areas like the Outer Cape, viruses spread the same way as in urban areas: through droplets suspended in the air or on surfaces.
From what is known thus far about COVID-19, it is transmitted like other respiratory infections, like the flu, which spread easily. Although here the virus may not spread as quickly as it would in urban areas, where many people share space.
A group of Nauset High students recently visited Italy, where COVID-19 is currently spreading. But the students do not qualify for testing. “Because of a limited capacity for testing, the only individuals being tested right now are symptomatic,” Crowley said. As of Tuesday, Italy is not among the list of countries subject to quarantine.
According to the CDC, symptoms of the virus appear 2 to 14 days after exposure and include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
The best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease is to take the same preventive measures as for the flu: frequent hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, avoiding touching your nose, mouth, and eyes, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, and staying at home if you’re feeling sick. Stock up on food and medicine so that if you do get sick you can stay home until you are better.
Working Against Fear
Human rights activists have pointed out that people who do not have health insurance, or are afraid to see the doctor, may not get the care they need if they show symptoms. Mark Gabriele, an organizer with the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities, said, “There’s a heightened fear. People will not show up for an appointment if they’re afraid they’ll get deported.”
Coronaviruses circulate each year, but few get as much media attention as the current one. At the same time, the CDC currently calculates that 18,000 to 46,000 people died this year from the not-nearly-as-famous flu.
That’s why school nurses like Cope are balancing awareness while guarding against fear. “We’re watching what’s happening, because it’s evolving,” Cope said. “On the other hand, there is a lot of misinformation and panic.”
Cope pointed out that the interest in the virus has eclipsed other important world happenings. “We’re not talking about the 100,000 people freezing to death in Syria,” she said.