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How to prepare for an epidemic
It involves more chocolate than you might expect
Welcome to Not a Doctor, the only newsletter about health and science that reminds you to stock up on condoms — and it’s all for free. (The newsletter is free. Please pay for any and all safe sex items.)
So, after yesterday’s update, you’re ready to prepare instead of panicking, right? Great!
But what exactly does that mean?
There’s a lot we may need to prepare for, but the hard part is, we’re not exactly sure what we’re preparing for. Will it be nothing? A few days of working from home? Weeks or months of no school? Grocery stores with empty shelves? Total societal collapse???
At this juncture, it’s very difficult to know what will happen. (I would rule out both “nothing” and “societal collapse,” though.) But we do know that the virus, and our response to it, will change how we work, learn, eat, and have fun.
Today we’ll talk about the logical, not-panicky ways we can get ready for likely scenarios.
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But wait — who are you?
My name is Melody Schreiber. I’m a freelance journalist and the editor of a book about premature birth, What We Didn’t Expect, which will be published in November 2020.
What I’m not: A doctor. I’m also not a scientist, or really an expert of any kind. (Unless you count loading a dishwasher! I am probably one of the world’s foremost dishwasher-efficiency specialists.) I’m a journalist, so I like asking questions and following the news. But if I ever get something wrong (here or elsewhere), please get in touch so I can correct the error.
The CDC also has plenty of advice on how to prepare, by the way. Listen to the experts! But if you ever encounter advice that’s a little confusing or technical, please email me with questions (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I’m including a glossary of technical terms at the end of this letter; if there’s an asterisk next to a term or phrase you don’t recognize, just scroll down to get your learning on.
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People get ready: Work edition
If you haven’t received guidance at work already, ask your boss what the plan is. If you are able and comfortable with starting to work remotely now, it’s probably a good idea — you’ll likely feel better if you can start doing that before there’s a positive case identified in your workplace. As a side benefit, you’ll get the jump on everyone else in figuring out how best to work from home (there are some great tips here.)
If there is a case at work, will employees be notified? When and how? If you work closely with someone who has tested positive, will you work remotely under self-quarantine*? If you test positive, are you covered by sick leave? For how long? Will workers’ comp cover your medical bills if you contracted it at work? What if you’re sick with something else and need to stay home to be on the safe side — do the same rules on self-quarantine and sick leave apply? Are you required to travel, and what accommodations will work make if you become sick away from home?
Some people aren’t able to work remotely, especially in the service industry. In cases like that, it’s particularly important to know what the sick leave policies are — not only if you get sick, but so you know whether your coworkers might be obligated to work while under the weather, and try to prepare accordingly.
These are all important questions to ask your manager. If they don’t know, ask someone higher up. You don’t want to be stuck looking for answers later on, in a potentially dicey situation.
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People get ready: School edition
It seems as though universities and colleges are choosing to go remote when a case of community spread* has been identified. It makes sense — college campuses can be huge, and it’s difficult if not impossible to close down only some parts.
Remote learning for colleges and universities can take different forms, including Blackboard and remote sessions (via Zoom/Skype/Google Hangout/etc). If you’re a professor, you’ll need to rethink in-class presentations, final exams, and other planned in-person/public events.
Elementary, middle, and high schools will likely take different tacks. A recent study found that kids are just as likely to be infected as adults — they just don’t show symptoms nearly as much. That’s great for the kids! But it’s very worrying from a spread-of-disease perspective, because you won’t stay home if you don’t know you’re sick. It’s still not clear how contagious kids who have positive cases are, but it’s very likely that we’ll see school closures once cases are detected.
This will likely happen on a school-by-school basis, although with widespread community transmission, you may see entire counties close down their schools. Teachers are weighing options to teach remotely, including apps and YouTube videos.
Kids who rely on schools for food, shelter, and even clean laundry will suffer when their schools close down. Officials — both at schools and at the local, state, and federal levels — will need to come up with plans for keeping these students safe and fed.
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Photo: Chris Waits/Flickr
Let’s go shopping: Food, medicine, and supplies
For those of you who have been living under rocks: it’s time to stock up on a few essentials (wherever you can find them, at this point — more tips on this below). The CDC* recommends that those at risk of contracting COVID-19 have enough supplies to last “for a period of time.” Wow, thanks, CDC, that’s so specific!
In general, experts are saying you should have enough food, medicine, and household supplies to last two weeks.
But wait, you may be asking. This isn’t a snowstorm. Why freak out and buy a bunch of things?
Good question! First of all, don’t freak out, and don’t buy things you won’t need. But the idea is you should buy whatever you usually need for a two-week period.
Here’s why you might be staying home for about two weeks:
1. You’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, or you want to avoid doing so — for instance, if someone at work or school has been diagnosed.
2. You’re sick, or you have to care for a sick family member.
If you are sick for ANY reason, please for the love of God stay home. I don’t care if your intuition tells you it’s just a cold. I DO NOT CARE if it’s probably just allergies creeping in, ha ha. Nobody wants to be around your coughing, sneezing, miserable ass. Don’t get on the metro, don’t run out to the store for more cough drops, just don’t.
Even if it’s not COVID-19, please do not spread any more germs around and freak anyone out right now. I don’t want to stay up all night with a feverish baby because Lynn from Accounting wanted to push through her sniffles.
(Side note: If you don’t have sick leave and you absolutely have to work, I’m sending you my most Marianne Williamson healing vibes and my hope that someday soon we will see guaranteed sick leave, at least just to curb this epidemic.)
If it is COVID-19, but it’s not severe, your doctor may still advise you stay home and self-quarantine — if you can, sleep in a room by yourself, use a separate bathroom, and limit contact with other people. (I know, I know, that’s really tough, if not impossible, for many of us.)
3. There’s a regional cordon sanitaire,* and officials tell you to stay home (either all of the time or as much as possible).
In any case, make sure you have enough of whatever you need to last a few weeks — food and toilet paper, yes, but also contacts solution, good books, condoms (hey, even in an epidemic you need some safe love), whatever.
Even if you’re skeptical about needing to self-quarantine… who wants to go grocery shopping or do a quick Target run during an epidemic? You won’t want to risk additional contact with crowds if you don't have to. Also, we are already seeing some supplies are limited in stores, and it's possible we could see some supply chain disruptions.*
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Don’t forget to have fun?
For some of us, preparing for an epidemic (and writing about it in a newsletter) is what we do in our spare time. Others like to hang out with friends and watch movies or something? Unclear.
Your social life is very likely going to take a hit over the next few weeks. Even if you’re not that worried, your friends might be. Please don’t be offended if they cancel plans. It’s not you, it’s COVID-19. It should go without saying at this point not to shake hands or hug. :(
I recommend not going to large events (100 people or more); not hanging out in enclosed spaces too much (like movie theaters); and walking and biking instead of taking public transit, if possible. I’m a fan of restaurants, but keep in mind — many food-service workers have terrible sick leave policies, if they have them at all. Just sayin’.
Instead, start thinking about ways you can relax — make a list of Netflix shows to binge; buy a bunch of escapist novels; order seeds to start that spring garden you’ve always planned.
And plan on keeping in touch with family, friends and neighbors via email, phone, and video-chatting. Set schedules to regularly check in, so you have something to look forward to.
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Thermometer (if you already have one, make sure it actually works)
Any prescriptions you have that you might be able to stock up on - I know, for many medications this is damn near impossible, but make sure your asthma inhaler has a few puffs left, okay?
Cold and cough medications - definitely Tylenol or another acetaminophen to help reduce fevers, and perhaps a cough syrup so you can get some sleep despite hacking up a lung
Allergy medication - it’s the season, and you do not want to worry about what that new dry cough means
Contacts solution, condoms/birth control (I see you), deodorant if you’re running low - you might be in close quarters with family or roommates, you gotta stay fresh
60% or greater alcohol-based hand sanitizer, just in case
Cleaning supplies - here’s the EPA’s list of COVID-killing disinfectants
60% or greater rubbing alcohol - it can double as hand sanitizer in a pinch, and you can also use it to clean your phone and other electronics
Laundry detergent - you’ll likely need to wash your clothes and bedding more than usual
Dish detergent - I dunno, just good to have?
Toilet paper, tissues, paper towels
If you have a kid:
Child-safe cold and cough medications
Diapers and wipes
Coloring books, painting supplies, new books and toys - things to keep them occupied if they need to stay home
If you have pets:
Food, litter, etc
Ridiculous outfits to dress them in for a Quarantine Day 13 Fashion Show
You know the drill - rice, canned goods, pasta, vegetable oil, anything that can sit on a shelf for a long time
But also pasta sauces, spices and seasonings for rice - if you’ve ever eaten plain pasta or rice, you know that two weeks of it is torture
Frozen fruits and vegetables
Coffee, tea, hot chocolate
Prepared meals for when you’re too sick to cook - whether that means boxed mac ‘n’ cheese and canned soup, or as much frozen lasagna and dumplings as your freezer can handle
Bottled water - in case you have a temporary service disruption
Special treats like chocolate, ice cream, chips, booze if you’re into that sort of thing - don’t go overboard, especially if you’re now working from home, but get yourself a little something for when you need to be cheered up!
It might be a good idea to have a small amount of cash on hand, if only to limit trips to the bank
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Tips on finding items
If your local big-box store, like Target or Wal-Mart, is sold out of something, try a local mom-and-pop or bodega. Pharmacies may also have bigger stocks of medicine. For cleaning supplies, like Lysol wipes, check out home-improvement stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can also back-order some items on sites like Target.com, so you don’t have to be there the second the truck arrives. (I’m a fan of ordering online and then picking up in the store — that way, I’m in and out of a sometimes-crowded store.)
And one more thing
Please consider getting a flu shot, if you’re able and have not already done so. The flu season is still in full swing, and 1) getting sick right now could be unusually terrifying, 2) let’s do anything we can to reduce illness for others, and 3) it is possible to get both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, which sounds absolutely terrible.
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CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
community spread or community transmission: when a virus is being spread locally, without travel to an affected area; often, this term is used when a person tests positive for COVID-19 but had no contact with a known case
cordon sanitaire: a zone where people are prevented from leaving or entering
self-quarantine: when you stay home and avoid contact with others, in this case for 14 days; this is usually recommended when you’ve had contact with someone with COVID-19 (check out some tips for keeping to yourself during that time).
supply chain disruptions: when goods are no longer produced, shipped, and/or sold in stores or online, or are done so in limited quantities
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Tomorrow, I’ll be back to talk about hand washing, hand sanitizer, and whether you need to start stocking up on hard liquor for some DIY disinfecting.
In the meantime, if you know someone who might appreciate this newsletter, please feel free to forward it to them! I’m planning to host a Q&A later this week, but if you have any questions, concerns, feedback, or embarrassing stories about your high school years, please reach out to email@example.com.