As stores run low on bathroom and sanitation essentials and fears over a local COVID-19 outbreak rise, local experts advise the public to focus on what they can control.
Linda Higley, a Spokane psychologist who sees patients from their teens to their 80s, said about eight of out every 10 patients she’s seen recently have brought up the virus. Those who are older and more at risk are especially concerned. Panic, she said, can often make things worse. So she advises patients to focus on the facts.
“I am always, always asking people to look at reality,” she said. “We don’t have an epidemic in Spokane, so I don’t want you to worry about something that’s not here. But I always reiterate be safe, wash your hands, don’t touch your face and wipe your grocery cart, and do all of those common sense things we probably should have been doing anyway.”
As of Friday night, there were 79 confirmed cases in four Washington counties. Most are in King County. There are currently 15 deaths reported due to COVID-19 by county and state health officials.
Yen-I Lee, a mass communication professor at WSU who focuses on health crisis and risk information, said she’s seen an usual amount of emotion, fear and stress about COVID-19 online, and people feeling that way are extremely vulnerable to misinformation. In the face of uncertainty, people are going to panic, she said, but transparency from government and health officials, consuming accurate information from reputable sources and proper hygiene and safety measures can help.
COVID-19 is mild or asymptomatic for 80% of people who get the infection, according to the World Health Organization. About 15% of people with COVID-19 will develop severe infection that requires oxygen, and 5% will develop a critical infection requiring ventilation.
So far, people older than 60 and those with compromised immune systems and with underlying health conditions are at higher risk to develop severe infection if they get COVID-19.
Fear of uncertainty, scapegoating and emotional distress – even in those who haven’t been exposed to the disease – are all normal responses to an outbreak, according to reports from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. National groups, such as the American Psychological Association, are advising people to keep themselves informed, and do what they can to stay connected to their support system and manage their stress.
Kari Nixon, an assistant professor at Whitworth University who researches medical humanities and contagious diseases, said panic over the virus, reacting over social media, and purchasing massive amounts of toilet paper, bottled water and hand sanitizer could make things worse for those who are most vulnerable.
“To try and mitigate your anxiety, stay in that healthy, middle realm where you’re neither licking coronavirus off a spoon, nor holing yourself up in your house with a year’s worth of toilet paper,” she said. “That middle ground would suggest actually kind of an acceptance that yeah, it could happen and I ultimately don’t control every pathogen that comes in and out of my body.”
She said people are also constantly inundated with information about COVID-19 through social media, not all of which is true or in context, which can spread stigma against people of Asian descent and give them the impression that they are in immediate danger.
People should be cautious, she said, but not obsess over the future and things they can’t control.
“Understanding that you can only do so much is actually kind of freeing,” she said.
Mortality for COVID-19, so far between 3% and 4%, appears higher than seasonal influenza. The WHO cautions that number is likely too high. The actual infection mortality rate likely will be lower, it said.
The flu, which has symptoms similar to COVID-19, is responsible for dozens of deaths in Washingtonians each year. This year’s flu season is milder than last year, yet it has hospitalized 265 people and is blamed for 11 deaths in Spokane County. Statewide, 74 people have died from the flu, including six children.
Congress has directed funding to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, but that process will take at least a year, according to federal officials.
Even with a vaccine, however, people would still have to opt in to getting it, or as Dana Bowers, clinical assistant professor in pharmacotherapy at Washington State University, points out, “Looking at influenza, we know it’s a problem, and we can prevent it and people still don’t get the flu vaccine.”
Higley said many of her patients who are anxious about a potential outbreak in Spokane were already anxious and the virus fears added to it. She would advise patients, or anyone struggling with fear, depression and anxiety, to start by analyzing their thoughts to see whether they are based on evidence, and are rational.
“If your thought is everybody in my neighborhood, everybody everywhere is going to die, let’s step back, take a breath and look at that thought,” she said. “Is that a rational thought? No, it’s not. Is there a probability that everyone in your apartment building’s going to die? No, there is not any evidence of that.
“Do some stress management, breathe, think about reality.”
She said it’s understandable why people, especially those in their 60s, are concerned, and she urges people to think about what they can control and not worry about what-ifs.
“Focus on what you can do,” she said.
Reporter Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.
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