News about COVID-19 changes rapidly, which can leave many feeling confused about what they should do to protect themselves and others.

It can be especially distressing for the immunocompromised and elderly. These groups may be at higher risk of getting very sick from the illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a new strain of virus in the coronavirus family. It causes a respiratory illness that can be transmitted from person to person similar to the flu, according to Diane Georgeson, Oneonta health officer. Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and pneumonia and can range from mild to severe.

Bassett Prime Care Physician Dr. Douglas DeLong, who specializes in the health and care of the elderly, said people at higher risk should avoid large gatherings of people. They should ask family members and friends to go grocery shopping in their place if possible, and have a month's supply of medicine on hand. He also said it's important for those who may voluntarily quarantine themselves to have a social support network, like church or their family and friends.

"Families need to have those discussions," DeLong said. "All of us need to be aware of our neighbors that may need assistance."

Several area health professionals have stressed that if someone thinks they're sick, they must call a medical provider instead of rushing to a facility. Bassett Healthcare Network Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Steven Heneghan at a Friday, March 13 media briefing said this decreases the likelihood of both patients and providers getting sick from exposure, and reduces the strain on facilities that don't currently have the testing capacity anticipated to be needed.

Those concerned they may have symptoms of upper respiratory illness should call 607-547-5555, Bassett Healthcare Network's COVID-19 central number. From there, they will be triaged based on described symptoms. They may either be told their symptoms don't qualify them for an in-person visit or they will be given a referral for one.

Though the outlook for COVID-19 test availability is getting better — President Donald Trump on Wednesday evening signed into law a relief package that includes provisions for free coronavirus testing — the United States is still behind, according to infectious disease modeling specialist and Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Pinar Keskinocak.  Keskinocak has worked on projects with the CDC and the American Red Cross. 

She said implementing a combination of social distancing — maintaining a distance of at least six feet between oneself and another person — minimizing travel, closing schools and "strongly discouraging or eliminating" social gatherings will help reduce the number of infections. Keskinocak said based on models for a general pandemic, for these interventions to be truly effective, they need to stay in place for at least six to eight weeks.

For the vast majority of people, COVID-19 is a relatively mild illness, Dr. Charles Hyman, an infectious disease specialist at Bassett Medical Center said at the media briefing. However, they still need to do their part to limit the spread of the virus. Practice social distancing, wash hands thoroughly and often with hand sanitizer as a backup and sneeze into the elbow, DeLong said.

"It's unethical for the rest of us to not do everything we can to help flatten that curve," DeLong said. "It's going to take all of us to do this."

"Flattening the curve" refers to keeping the number of cases at a manageable level for medical providers to deal with, according to the science news website Live Science.

He said people should avoid going to crowded places like bars and restaurants at this time.

"They're putting themselves and more importantly, vulnerable, frail and other members of our community at risk by allowing the virus to exponentially multiply," DeLong said.

Betty Ann Clemens, 62, of Norwich said though she understands why it’s important, social distancing has taken an emotional toll on her, especially as a great-grandmother who cherishes being a caretaker. Out of concern for her safety, Clemens' school-aged grand- and great-grandchildren no longer visit her house, she said. 

“My son stopped in a few minutes ago and all the kids were in the car,” Clemens said Tuesday. “It just breaks my heart that they can’t come in and I can’t give them a hug.

Clemens said her adult children have been extremely supportive of her and her 85-year-old mother, calling every day and visiting multiple times a week. Chenango County schools are closed as part of recently announced State of Emergency, and Clemens said she feels especially helpless that she can’t ease the burden of child care at this time.

“It’s just hard," Clemens said. "We’ve lost our jobs basically.”

Though it’s hard being cut off from the children, Clemens, who is a cancer survivor, said she knows it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

“I keep that in the back of my mind,” Clemens said. “I know what that was like and how scary it was.”

Clemens said she keeps informed by watching the news and looks to Facebook to see how others are dealing. She now attends church online, she said. Once she can be around the children again, Clemens said she knows exactly what she's most looking forward to.

“Lots of hugs,” she said. “I never realized how important they were until they were taken away.”

Visit www.bassett.org/covid-19 for more resources and links to the most up-to-date information about COVID-19.

Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at skarikehalli@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.

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