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By staying apart, we are working together as a community

Amy Herr, professor of bioengineering | March 15, 2020
Graphic of coronavirus spread by University of Washington researcher Carl Bergstrom

Chart shows two different virus reproduction rates. Graphic by University of Washington researcher Carl Bergstrom and Esther Kim.

We are working together by staying apart. Over the last week, you’ve been asked to make drastic changes to your lives. At UC Berkeley, we’ve suddenly moved to remote instruction.  You’ve been asked to keep your distance from friends and classmates (maintain ~6 ft spacing).  You’ve been asked to wash your hands with soap and water at every opportunity.

All of the abruptness and unknowns are making you anxious. (I certainly am!)  It’s natural: uncertainty causes anxiety.  And this public health emergency is anything but certain.

So, instead of revisiting what you have been asked to do, let’s talk about why you’ve been asked to take action.  Why are we all upending our daily lives – in ways big and small – in response to this novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) … even if we feel just fine?

Well, most of us are doing it for others.  It’s not just (or even mostly) about us.  It’s more about halting virus transmission.

We are working together to slow the transmission of COVID-19 to our classmates, friends, and families. We are working together to vigilantly protect individuals at high risk for becoming infected.  In fact, many of us will develop COVID-19 (if we have not already), regardless of ethnicity or country of origin. But, nearly 80% of us will develop mild to no symptoms at all. Most of us will easily recover.

Mild symptoms sound like good news, but are not. Transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is insidious. Because we feel healthy (this may be especially true for young people), we may unknowingly transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus to other people3. Some of those people are at high risk for worse health outcomes. High-risk people are “over age 60, and those with underlying health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, chronic lung diseases, or severely weakened immune systems.” A huge swath of people we know and love.

To protect each other, shortening the time from symptom onset to isolation is vital, to reduce transmission between people. We are coming to understand that viral “transmission [may occur] for 1–2 days before onset of symptoms,”  making social distancing especially important. Social distancing “prevents transmission from symptomatic and non-symptomatic cases, hence flattening the epidemic and pushing the peak further into the future.”

So, by weathering the disruption, and following mitigation advice you are committing small acts of altruism every day.

By social distancing, we are teaming up – in a paradoxical way – to ensure that our critical, finite healthcare resources are available to the sickest people. When they need it. Where they need it. We are acting now, so that we do not overwhelm our health care system later. Think available hospital beds, ventilators (for this respiratory illnesses), and rapid diagnostic test kits. Think of our efforts as a marathon, and not a sprint.

Through our concerted efforts, we are ‘flattening the transmission curve’ – keeping the number of people who require care at any point in time below the capacity of our health care system6.  We are keeping demand from overwhelming the supply.

We are banding together to ensure that our health care professionals have the energy and resources they need, to provide the best care to those in need. We have good motivation from Anthony Fauci, M.D., Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up.” Rising to his call, we are being aggressive to keep the number of infected people down for as long as possible to stretch healthcare resources. Your tiny acts of altruism are adding up.

As expected with a novel virus, there are many unknowns. To gain knowledge about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, tenacious health care professionals and government-funded researchers are working around the clock. Their top priority is to halt the disease.

While they are working (many here at UC Berkeley), we can thank decades of research and diligent researchers, as we do know that mitigation works. Even for COVID-19 – a term unfamiliar to most of us as recently as at the start of our Spring 2020 semester – early data are showing that mitigation works. By acting now, we are avoiding a disastrous situation. The sooner we control transmission of the virus, the sooner we can return our lives to normal. Our combined altruism is adding up.

Because we already know how mitigation works, something close to an ‘instruction manual for a pandemic’ does exist. The World Health Organization (WHO), US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and regional departments of public health. Visit frequently or set up alerts. All the while, be skeptical of “information” that comes to you via social media, random discussions, and web searches (including Wikipedia).

You might consider treating tweets and posts from non-experts with the gravity they deserve:  as if the information is contained on post-it notes slipped under your door by an anonymous hand.  Or as if they are postcards scrawled in crayon poking out of your home mailbox. Go to the primary source, including trusted experts and peer-reviewed communications. Use your UC Berkeley-honed critical thinking skills. Don’t be duped and don’t spread misinformation.

Follow fast-changing guidance from bona fide health agencies and local government. And if you do develop a fever, dry cough, and/or shortness of breath – as many of us have and will — please assume that you have COVID-19, and then calmly follow public health officials’ instructions. Staying connected helps, even if we are distancing in the physical world.

Unexpectedly enough, it is your self-centered behavior – in the very truest, individual sense – that is making you so genuinely altruistic.

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