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Hysteria won't make you safer against coronavirus

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Michael J. Dowling,

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Michael J. Dowling, president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, at the Center for Advanced Medicine in New Hyde Park on Sunday. Credit: James Carbone

The past few weeks have been filled with increasing anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus. Fear of the unknown can drive hysteria, paranoia and irrational behaviors that can exacerbate the problem, such as hoarding cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers, protective masks and other materials now in short supply.

While there are legitimate concerns over the virus, properly known as COVID-19, there is no need to panic. Most health care organizations have been preparing for the virus to hit the United States for weeks. And there has been collaboration among health systems and local, state and federal health officials.

While there is no vaccine yet for coronavirus and we are continuing to learn more about how it is contracted and spread, the illness is relatively tame compared with other infectious disease like Ebola and not nearly as widespread as the flu, which has killed 20,000 Americans this season. Unless you suffer from a pre-existing respiratory issue, are immune-compromised or are elderly and in poor health, you should be safe. 

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 80 percent of those infected experience relatively mild symptoms, about 15 percent become critically ill and 3 percent have died worldwide, which is much lower than the Ebola mortality rate (50 percent) and the SARS outbreak in 2003 (10 percent).

While there have been more than 110,000 confirmed cases globally, more than half of those individuals have already been discharged from hospitals and have recovered. Most who present to urgent-care facilities and emergency departments with symptoms are sent home and required to stay there. At this point, the biggest challenge is getting people tested, which will get a big boost when more hospitals, health systems and commercial labs can supplement the testing being done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states and cities. The mortality rate is also expected to decline, considering there will be more people who tested positive but have mild or no symptoms at all.

As testing capacity increases, the amount of cases is sure to grow. But like anything in life, it’s not how hard you get hit, it’s how you respond. Our response is what will minimize the hysteria during the coming weeks. We need to stay calm and be realistic.

Northwell Health, for instance, is well-prepared to care for the people who need us and contract the virus. We’ve been through this before — several times, actually — responding to outbreaks like Ebola, the H1N1 epidemic in 2009, superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene. Countless hours were put in to ensure the safety of our employees and patients, as well as to deliver the right care to the right people. It’s a challenge we take pride in.

We are taking that same approach with COVID-19. But it’s on you to continue doing what you can to prevent the virus from spreading — wash your hands religiously, stay home when you are sick and keep away from those infected and avoid large crowds.

The outbreak of a disease doesn’t mean your life should come to a halt and your health should suffer. You should continue exercising and eating well. Get good sleep. Use relaxation techniques and listen to the experts and health care providers.

Panic never solved anything and only raises tension during an already stressful time. It also reduces your body’s capability to fight infection and disease. And by using common sense, we will stay together and survive this outbreak.

Michael Dowling is president and chief executive of Northwell Health, New York’s largest health care provider and private employer.