The night of the goblins and witches will soon be upon us. In ancient times, people believed evil spirits could be expelled with a sneeze. The demon could then enter the nostrils of someone nearby, wreaking havoc on the possessed. Saying “bless you” likely originated from this belief; references to wishing God’s blessing after a sneeze exist in first century Roman literature.

This custom gained traction during the Middle Ages. In 1347, a few days before Halloween, the Bubonic Plague arrived in Europe as a group of ships from the Black Sea limped into a Sicilian port. The dock workers made a terrifying discovery: the vessels were littered with ghastly corpses, the few remaining survivors covered in oozing black boils. Unmanned boats washed ashore with no survivors. Over the next five years the Black Death haunted Europe, killing over twenty million people, a third of the population. A sneeze was often the initial sign of the illness, thus saying “bless you” was a benediction, commending the soul of the soon-to-be-departed into the hands of God.

A new plague has been released in a strikingly similar way, traveling from port to port and from nose to nose. And the evil spirits are surging in Blaine County, hunting for souls to possess. When things got bad last spring, we were able to send patients to other hospitals and bring staff here. Now those places are dealing with an ever-growing number of cases, their hospitals at near capacity. This time, nobody is coming to save us. We are on our own.

My grandfather smoked a pipe, the smoke gliding across the room like a ghost. My grandmother suffered from asthma and she would turn on the fan and open the windows, rapidly clearing the smog. Imagine a person with Covid-19 exhaling smoke. If my grandfather had worn a mask, the cloud would have stayed closer and the amount reduced due to particulate material being trapped in the mask. A wisp of smoke won’t cause an asthma attack and a dash of coronavirus isn’t as likely to cause infection. But a roomful of virus is a roomful of trouble. Most super-spreader events involve prolonged time in enclosed spaces, like indoor parties or long bus rides. Smoke and viruses rapidly dissipate outdoors, a much safer environment.

This difficult time will be over eventually. The pandemic is temporary; death and disability are not. COVID-19 is a bizarre illness with many suffering permanent effects, including cardiac, pulmonary and neurologic damage. A recent study demonstrated nearly 90 percent of hospitalized patients have ongoing symptoms that significantly affect quality of life. Another study showed that more than half of those infected suffer from relentless fatigue in the aftermath, regardless of the severity of the initial infection. Read that last sentence again.

Here are five simple things we can do to drastically improve our coronavirus case numbers:

1. Wear a mask, an act of benevolence towards others and the best way to be a good neighbor.

2. Maintain physical distance with people outside your household. When you see a friend, stand a little further away than normal.

3. Avoid crowds.

4. Don’t spend time indoors with people you don’t live with. Go for a walk or gather around a firepit.

5. Wash your hands well and often.

Here are a few things you can do to shore up your resistance. Get a flu shot; having two respiratory illness at the same time could be devastating. Exercise and get enough sleep. Eat healthy, focusing on dark green, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. They contain carotenoids that power our natural killer cells, the destroyers of the wicked coronavirus.

Avoid the infected cloud at all cost. And remember to say “bless you” when someone sneezes. Nobody needs those evil spirits flying up their nose.


Dr. Brent Russell is an emergency physician at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center. This is his fifth piece for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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