Dr. David Cohn was on a cruise to Antarctica recently when COVID-19 was grabbing all the headlines and becoming an epidemic across China.
About a quarter of the passengers aboard the ship were from China, and they celebrated Chinese New Year with the rest of the amiable group as they all walked with penguins, viewed the glistening walls of ice and reveled in the spectacular scenery.
A few passengers developed respiratory infections on the trip, and Cohn, an infectious disease specialist at Denver Health and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, shared his expertise with the doctor onboard to isolate the sick folks and limit the spread of whatever bug was bugging them.
It was no big deal, Cohn said.
The doc, who spent years in Uganda developing protocols for stopping the spread of AIDS and treated patients in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, is not prone to hysteria. He counsels people to use common sense, wash their hands, get flu shots and avoid paranoia.
Still, he said, COVID-19 is nothing to sneeze at. In the infectious disease world right now, “business is up, there’s no question about that.”
Several times a day he receives reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization on the spread of the disease. The agencies are tracking the virus worldwide and publishing the research into how it is transmitted, how to treat it effectively and how to limit its spread.
A CDC report last week said it’s not a matter of if the virus will spread across the U.S. but when, so communities must be prepared.
That means providing the means for local laboratories to test for the virus and get results quickly rather than sending specimens to out-of-state facilities and waiting for days to identify cases.
It means having sufficient protective garb for health care workers and enough space to isolate people who require hospitalization. It means preparing for potential school closures, canceled events and interrupted work schedules.
Freaking out is not on the list.
To put the epidemic in perspective, Cohn said, different coronaviruses have been around Colorado for years.
“Personally, I’ve had coronavirus twice,” he said. “Last year, I was sick for eight frickin’ weeks with it. It was virulent for me.”
But not fatal.
Data are still being assembled, but so far the death rate for COVID-19 is believed to be around 2%. Most cases appear to be mild, but just like with seasonal influenza, it can be deadly for vulnerable populations and others in random inexplicably serious cases.
My brothers and I have been experiencing flashbacks to 1986 as the news about COVID-19 gains momentum.
That’s the year my brother died.
Newly married, Paul was a healthy, happy 26-year-old man working as an accountant and studying for the CPA exam when he got sick. After a few days of fever and chills, he went to a doctor who diagnosed influenza and instructed him to take Tylenol, drink plenty of fluids and rest.
When his temperature spiked to 106 a few days later, his wife took him to the hospital where he was evaluated, admitted and treated with steroids. Within a day or so, he suffered acute respiratory failure and was put on a ventilator.
After six weeks in ICU, he died.
“Sh– happens,” said Cohn, who has spent a lifetime treating desperately ill patients with deadly communicable diseases.
As with all viruses, he said, supportive care is the only treatment for COVID-19. Antibiotics are worthless, so the best treatment is to enable the patient’s immune system to respond to the bug. “If it’s a virulent bug, sometimes we can’t do anything.”
So, what’s his best advice?
“You can’t go crazy cuckoo over this,” Cohn said.
But don’t be reckless. “When COVID-19 comes to Colorado, you’ll have to be careful about where you go and what you do.”
When Cohn returned from treating Ebola patients, his activities were restricted. He took his temperature daily for three weeks, monitored himself for any signs of the illness, and he stayed away from crowds.
But he was no hermit.
“I’ve got a selfie of me skiing three days after I got back from Africa,” he said. “It was fine.”
So, listen to the good doctor and live a little.
The resorts are reporting more than 75 inches of gorgeous snow, with bluebird skies and sunny days ahead.
If Paul were around, I know he’d be killing the moguls – COVID-19 be damned.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.