COVID-19: A healthcare issue, say local experts with recommendations

Laura Keener, Editor.

As discussions continue about the best way to provide a safe community — especially school communities — amid the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators, teachers and parents can find themselves in a jungle of confusing, conflicting and oftentimes incorrect information. To help weed out fact from fiction, the Messenger turned to the doctors of the Diocese of Covington’s own St. Elizabeth Healthcare.

Dr. Holly Danneman, St. Elizabeth Healthcare Family Medicine Residency, and Dr. Chanti Flanagan, hospitalist, director of Hospital Medicine, and chairman of Medicine, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, answered questions about what has been learned about the COVID-19 virus since March (when the virus was first reported in Kentucky) and some simple, common sense ways — based on science — to help keep communities safe and operating.

Both doctors agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic is a health care issue and encourage people — especially parents — to be looking for accurate information based on science from their trusted healthcare professionals.

“People’s unwillingness to accept this as a health issue and not a political issue could potentially affect our ability to get our children back in the classroom and decrease transmission,” said Dr. Danneman.

For both doctors, their commitment and interest in healthy families and communities is not just clinical. In addition to being doctors, Dr. Flanagan and Dr. Danneman are also wives and mothers.

“I’m a wife, a mother and a doctor, those are my priorities,” said Dr. Danneman. “As a parent, I want desperately for my children to get back to school for lots of reasons. First, they need that education from their teachers. People are also saying that the mental health of our children is important and they need to be back at school and playing athletics and I absolutely agree. But we also have to keep in mind that in order to be able to do so and to do so safely, we are going to have to follow a few safety measures. These are small sacrifices on our part to allow for all the things we want for our community and our children.”

Those safety measures, they say, are based on what healthcare professionals and scientists know about the coronavirus and its spread.

An important finding is that the virus is aerosolized, meaning that it is spread through respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets are released simply by breathing. The rate of release increases by talking, yelling, singing, coughing and sneezing. And, Dr. Flanagan said, “We know that people who do not have symptoms can still spread the disease. Additionally, the amount of virus seems to peak three days before one would develop symptoms.”

In Kentucky, — a state praised for its efforts in mitigating the spread of the virus — as of June 29, 15,347 coronavirus cases have been reported and 560 Kentuckians have died from complications from the virus.

“I have spent countless hours preparing for how to handle the ‘what ifs,’” said Dr. Flanagan. “Along with my colleagues and associates, I have taken care of patients that died from coronavirus. And while the numbers of deaths are much lower than predicted, those that died were not just numbers. That struck me very early on in the pandemic — someone lost a loved one, a husband or wife, a mom or dad, a daughter or son, a friend.”

As serious and contagious as the coronavirus is, the good news, according to Drs. Danneman and Flanagan and other healthcare professionals and scientists, is that there are simple measures that everyone can take that have a large impact on keeping themselves and others safe while also slowing the spread of the virus.

Several of these of practices have been identified since the very beginning of the pandemic and are based on what the healthcare and scientific communities know in general about mitigating infectious diseases.
— Washing hands frequently and for 20 seconds.
— Maintaining a safe social distance of six feet apart from another person.
— Avoiding large crowds.

When it was determined that the coronavirus was indeed aerosolized, healthcare professionals also began recommending wearing masks or face coverings for adults and children over the age of 2.

“In order to keep our community healthy and slow the spread of the virus, masking in public is highly advised. Face masks, along with the other preventative measures, can help slow the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Flanagan. “The mask protects large droplets from evaporating and turning into smaller droplets that can travel farther in the air. Without the mask, especially during those three pre-symptomatic days, a person with the COVID-19 could infect several people by just speaking.”

And while the general population seems to have accepted the wisdom of the first three protocols, mask wearing has become a flashpoint that is dividing the nation and carrying with it a lot of misinformation.

Drs. Danneman and Flanagan both say that mask wearing is a safe practice for almost everyone — including children over the age of two. There may be some people with respiratory illnesses whose physician would advise not to wear a mask. Anyone concerned about their personal safety when wearing a mask should contact their physician.

“The health risk of using a mask is extremely low,” said Dr. Danneman. “We recommend people to wear masks wisely. If you are using a cloth mask wash it appropriately and if you are using a disposable surgical mask, use those responsibly as well.”

“I would go back to our surgical friends who have been wearing masks for decades to protect themselves,” said Dr. Flanagan.

“In healthcare, we as physicians have been wearing masks for hours and hours a day, for years upon years and our health is absolutely fine when it comes to wearing a mask,” Dr. Danneman said.

Dr. Flanagan said that masks are uncomfortable at times, especially at first or when it’s extremely warm. “But sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the better of our community,” she said.

Dr. Danneman agreed.

“We as Christians and Catholics are called to not just take care of ourselves or our immediate family. We have a bigger calling and what we are doing will affect people we will never see.”

Dr. Flanagan empathized with the fatigue that many people are experiencing while dealing with the demands and restrictions brought on by the virus.

“We are all tired of this. We are all beyond ready for this pandemic to be over,” she said. “If you only want to wear a mask when absolutely necessary, remember that your risk of contracting the virus (and potentially spreading to your loved ones) is dependent both on the amount of virus in the air and the duration of exposure. Simply put, situations where you are less than six feet apart for a significant amount of time in small indoor condensed areas, the wearing of a mask is strongly recommended.”

Dr. Danneman said that she is encouraged by the response of many people in their sincerity and concern for others. Some have suggested that society can best conquer the pandemic through herd immunity. With herd immunity, 70 to 90 percent of a population would need to contract the virus and recover, building up the community’s immunity so that the remaining population would be protected. The problem is, many people who contract the virus would not recover. Dr. Danneman said there are better ways for this pandemic to end.

“I truly do believe we will get back to life as normal,” said Dr. Danneman. “We will have more of an awareness about the ease of the spread of infectious disease —that will always stay with us — but we will get back to normal. It will just take some sacrifice and by sacrifice I do not mean the sacrifice of lives. I am not willing to sacrifice the lives of other people to develop herd immunity when there are other ways for us to take care of this and that involves sacrifice and responsibility.”