News Article Details

For coronavirus mental health, take your well-washed hand off the panic button

Sacramento Bee - 3/11/2020

Mar. 11--If you're scared about the coronavirus, please calm down and consider this:

Famed labor leader and feminist icon Dolores Huerta was going to appear at Sacramento State on Friday. She was scheduled to talk about the importance of participating the U.S. Census.

But Huerta's foundation canceled her appearance on Tuesday by citing concerns about the coronavirus.

This news was lost in a tornado of panic as the numbers of people testing positive for COVID-19 surged. But here is why Huerta's decision to cancel all her public appearances is reasonable and based on facts and science while other cancellations and mass self-quarantines around California seemed more like outright panic.

Huerta is within weeks of turning 90. She is in the highest risk group of people susceptible to the coronavirus. Health officials are clear on this. They recommend that people over 60 stay away from large groups, including public places such as universities, concert venues, sporting events and social gatherings.

The data on Californians who have tested positive for COVID-19 or died from it is clear as well.

As of Tuesday, more than 140 had tested positive for the virus. In California, three have have died. The San Jose Mercury News reported on Monday that a Silicon Valley woman "in her 60s" had died after testing positive for COVID-19.

The Mercury News described the woman as having chronic health conditions and that she had been hospitalized for weeks before her death. Another confirmed California fatality was a 72-year-old Rocklin man who was also reported to have had underlying health conditions and who had recently returned from a cruise to Mexico on the Grand Princess cruise line. That is the same carrier whose ship had just docked in Oakland with passengers afflicted with the coronavirus.

And now Sacramento County reported its first death Tuesday. A resident of an assisted living facility, she was in her 90s.

What data show

Loss of life is devastating to families, a pain many of us know too well. My parents were senior citizens when they died and each was a profound experience beyond words. Consequently, I try not to get lost in numbers that represent human beings.

Those feelings of loss and despair never leave us and that's natural. They can even inform public policy with compassion but they can and should never overwhelm sensible, fact-based approaches to policy affecting millions.

More than ever right now, we must follow the facts and science calmly so we can take care of the most people compassionately.

Here is a fact: Out of nearly 40 million people in California, three people have died from coronavirus. They were in their 60s, 70s, and 90s. One had been sick and one of them traveled with a cruise ship company that has seen an outbreak of coronavirus cases because, why? It operates a business in which large crowds of older people congregate in closed spaces for days at a time.

That's why it would make sense for older people to postpone that cruise for the time being. That's why it makes sense for the TV shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" to postpone their studio audience tapings. Yes, audiences for those shows skew older.

But where coronavirus panic does not make sense, given the data, is at our public schools. All the data show that children are at the lowest end of the scale of people who should fear the coronavirus. So far, there has been one confirmed case of an elementary school child testing positive for COVID-19 in our county.

That child attends Maeola R. Beitzel Elementary School in the Elk Grove Unified School District. Apparently, that child lives in a household where two family members tested positive for COVID-19. But Peter Beilenson, director of Sacramento County'sDepartment of Health Services, described the child as doing well at home.

Who is vulnerable?

"This disease is most serous among the elderly," said state Sen. Richard Pan, who is a doctor and has authored consequential health legislation that sought to prevent the spread of disease such as measles.

"Eighty percent of people who contract the coronavirus suffer mild symptoms or are asymptomatic," Pan said,

Did we catch that? The vast majority of people either suffer mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. That is why most health officers have not recommended closing public schools. That's why Beilenson of Sacramento County and state health officials have publicized protocols that only call for closing schools or districts in the event of multiple positive tests for COVID-19.

Why? Because kids are far better equipped to deal with a COVID-19 infection than the elderly and the sick.

Why? Public schools are where needy kids get fed, even during school breaks. Public schools are where working parents can count on free or fee-based child care so that they can go to work while feeling good about where their kids are.

That's why even in Seattle, the largest city in a state where 24 people have died, King County health officials are not recommending closing schools unless there has been a confirmed positive test for COVID-19.

The King County health office wrote this recommendation: "The reason we are not recommending school closures at this time is because children have not been shown to be a high risk group for serious illness from this virus. In addition, when some schools briefly closed during the H1N1 influenza pandemic, we learned that many children still gathered in group settings and still had exposure to one another. As much as possible, children should be allowed to carry on with their education and normal activities."

Don't close schools

This is why it was so wrong for the Elk Grove Unified School District to shut down its 67 schools serving 64,000 students this week. They did it over the weekend when they still had zero positive tests. Now they have one. And for that, they became the first district in California to shut it all down. Because of one positive test.

And, yes, kids at school could expose other kids, who can expose at-risk family members. That's one chain reaction, one that can be dealt with another way instead of taking draconian, sweeping measures instantly.

What that did was set off another chain reaction of negative events we are still feeling today. Parents had to scramble to find day care, especially working families and single parents.

"This really put me in a big bind," said Rochelle Schmidt, an Elk Grove mom of a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old. Her kids are not old enough to stay home alone yet. So what did Schmidt have to do? She had to leave her oldest with a family member while taking to her youngest daughter to work with her. That's what the King County health officials were talking about -- kids congregating in public spaces even if their schools are closed.

Does that make sense? No. Was panic at work here? Yes.

Beilenson has acknowledged that the Elk Grove decision was made in haste. Somewhere in the county health chain of command, the ball was dropped as elected officials in the county were not informed that EGUSD was going to take such a drastic step.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors needs to learn exactly where communication broke down so we don't have further communications pratfalls during a health crisis.

This is not to pile on well-meaning Elk Grove administrators. They were in a bind and had good intentions. But by Tuesday they were walking back part of their decision by allowing athletic and academic team activities to resume.

EGUSD is considering asking the state for financial compensation for this week's missed days of school. And they may add days to the school calendar. That's a lot of trouble that didn't have to happen. And now it has contributed to more anxiety in the county.

Reactions have tumbled on top of each other, as one announcement of a banning of large gatherings in Santa Clara, is followed by another of postponement of the massive music festival at Coachella. Social media is alive with hysteria.

"Some people have already made up their minds that the only way forward is to abide by their preconceived notions about quarantine not realizing they're contributing to the very sense of panic and chaos we're attempting to avoid," said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna.

Contributing smart measures through sober thought, even with urgency, is what we're looking for. UC Davis decided, after deliberation to cancel in-person final exams. For now, face-to-face classes are not canceled at Sac State. But instructors can voluntarily teach classes virtually as long as virtual classes happen during normally scheduled times. Sac State is canceling all international travel and non-essential domestic travel. And it is evaluating whether to cancel or postpone scheduled events and meetings on campus..

This is to comply with strategies by county officials to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and to stop the spread of public panic: "Sacramento County announced today that it will shift its effort to community mitigation measures that will slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community, protect those who are most vulnerable to severe illness, and allow our health care system to prepare resources to take care of severely ill patients. These new measures will include cessation of 14-day quarantines."

How do we protect those most vulnerable among us? By first knowing who they are: People over the age of 60. People with underlying medical conditions -- pulmonary, heart, lung, kidney, respiratory. People with compromised immune systems.

How do we protect them? By acknowledging that we will be out in the world, living our lives, but that we have to change our habits and be mindful that our indifference could put vulnerable person at risk. Those of us blessed with health might not feel the coronavirus deeply, but we could pass it on to someone who could be killed by it.

If you feel ill, stay home. until you are free of symptoms for 72 hours or after seven days from the start of symptoms, whichever is longer. If you can manage your cold at home with over the counter drugs, do that. But if you develop trouble breathing, if you have fever or a cough, call your doctor or call 911 if you feel in danger.

The county is asking employers to tell sick employees to stay home. Employers could help us all by being reasonable and compassionate with employees who are sick.

Wash your hands. Don't cough on people.

Read the recommendations from Sacramento County's public health website.

"We can all work together to protect our families and our communities," Pan said.

How does that start? For God's sake, calm down.


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