The coronavirus pandemic has most of the world's population on edge. While this highly contagious novel virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, can affect anyone, it seems to be hitting certain populations the hardest, including older adults, individuals with chronic medical conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, immunocompromised individuals), and cancer patients alike. "These individuals may not be able to host an immune response to fight off the infection the way that a healthy, younger person may be able to, which can result in more severe symptoms," explains Monisha Bhanote, MD, FCAP, triple board-certified physician. "One other at-risk population that can be easily forgotten is our team of healthcare providers, including doctors, nurses, [and] hospital staff."
If you're a healthy individual under the age of 50, statistics are in your favor; you are more likely to suffer only mild symptoms if you are infected with coronavirus. However, if you do not follow the safety guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which including keep yourself quarantined during this trying time, you are putting the at-risk population in even greater jeopardy.
Beyond humanitarian reasons, keeping at-risk populations healthy reduces the burden on emergency departments and Intensive Care Units (ICU), explains Amy Baxter, M.D., CEO and chief medical officer of Pain Care Labs. "ICUs are about 68 percent occupied normally, meaning there are only 32,000 of 100,000 beds we can flex up to on a good day," she says. "In any given ten-bed unit, one car wreck can fully occupy the ICU, so keeping patients who are more likely to need the ICU healthy is in everyone's best interest." Here are some of the ways you can help at-risk populations during the coronavirus crisis and beyond.
Follow Public Health Guidance on Reducing In-Person Interactions
Currently, the recommendation coming from the White House is to limit social gatherings to 10 people. It's important to follow these guidelines, not only to reduce your own vulnerability to infection, but because doing so can help flatten the curve, or slow the amount of people infected by the disease out so that it doesn't overburden healthcare workers. "The health care system itself is vulnerable at being overwhelmed by the number of people that will need services," says Dr. Sarah E. Raskin, an assistant professor within the School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. "By not putting extra burden on the system we can preserve the resources for the most vulnerable populations as well as the routine care we need to provide."
Whenever possible, consider using technology to check in with loved ones. "Skype and FaceTime can help slow the spread, and also keep you feeling connected with the rest of the world," says Dr. Bhanote. "Use this time for positive support, book clubs, exercise classes, [and] guided meditations."
Hygiene Is Key
Consider the ways in which you help prevent the spread of germs in your own day-to-day life. While catching certain germs might not be a matter of life or death to you, it may be to your neighbor. For this reason, Erika Schwartz, M.D., internist and founder of Evolved Science Wellness practice, recommends disinfecting with alcohol, washing your hands with soap and water, and changing your clothes when leaving a populated area. "This way, you stop the spread of any virus, not just coronavirus," she says. "By being hygiene-conscious you keep immune-compromised people at lower exposure to any type of viruses that may cause problems."
Utilize Telemedicine Services
So long as you're not experiencing severe symptoms of illness, consider using telemedicine services to discuss what you're experiencing. "The healthcare system is overwhelmed with potential cases and trying to keep up with the rapid demand for testing and availability of staff and equipment," Dr. Bhanote says. "Utilizing telemedicine services to determine whether you are a candidate and should go to the hospital may help relieve some of your own anxiety and reduce the risk of exposure to others. "In addition, she points out that using this kind of service will also free up health care workers to take care of the severely ill who may require ventilation and intensive unit care.
Blood is currently in good supply at most local facilities, but blood banks will likely run out soon, warns Rusha Modi, M.D., a physician in internal medicine, gastroenterology and hepatology, and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck Medical Center of the University of Southern California. He recommends reaching out to your local blood bank to see if they're currently in need of donations and inquiring about the best safety precautions to take when donating blood.
Volunteer with School Lunch Programs
Schools nationwide are being shut down for several weeks at a time as the nation copes with the current crisis. This puts many children who depend on school lunches for food in a very difficult situation. "School closures mean millions of kids will not have access to regular meals," says Dr. Modi. He recommends contacting your local school district to learn how they're providing these children with lunches and inquiring as to whether they are taking donated meals or canned supplies so you can do your part in ensuring that no child is left hungry. "Any way to donate meals, canned supplies, can be of real value to lower-income communities."