On March 13, the South Central Public Health District revealed that we had our first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Blaine County. While this news may have surprised some of you, most of us working in the medical field have understood that this virus has likely been present in our community for several weeks, and we have been making changes to our practice to prepare for the inevitable surge in critical patients.

Every day we are seeing an increase in the number of positive cases and sick patients requiring admission to the hospital and ICU, so I would like to dispel some myths and reinforce some guidelines to better prepare our community for this pandemic.

First, please take the call for social distancing seriously. This is the single most important change we can make as a society to help slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19. There is now strong evidence that a large percentage of the population are asymptomatic carriers of the virus and can spread it without knowing. Let me repeat: you do not need symptoms to spread the disease. Given that information, one must assume that we all are contagious and act accordingly if we are ever going to control this pandemic. Examples of behavior that put you or others at risk include going to a friend’s house for dinner, getting in someone else’s car or going to a meeting at work.

Second, please do not come to the emergency department if you only have mild to moderate symptoms.

Third, it is true that the elderly are most at risk. We should be doing everything we can to protect our seniors, which means helping and reminding them to not leave the house. A very helpful task would be to go grocery shopping for them, but don’t expose them by going in their home. Regular visits may need to be canceled.

Please consider that while some of you are enjoying your extra time with family at home, the St. Luke’s health care providers and hospital staff are working round the clock right now to provide care to those who need it in our community, knowing that even with proper protective equipment they may be at great personal risk to themselves and their families. Some of you may not see the urgency of this situation or even be annoyed by it all, but I implore you to think about the greater good of this community, especially those who are in harm’s way.

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to be with us for months to years, and therefore these changes are going to be necessary for longer than you realize. Lives will be lost, and businesses will suffer, but if we all do our part, we can prevent what is an inconvenience for some of you from becoming a disaster for everyone.

Dr. Terry Ahern is part of the St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center’s emergency department.

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