Hygiene is top of mind throughout Oklahoma as residents anticipate the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19.
Schools, businesses and churches are altering routines while shoppers are emptying shelves of hand sanitizer and masks.
A recent spot check of a dozen CVS and Walgreens stores throughout the state found all but one was sold out of hand sanitizer. Several employees reported the next delivery truck was days away and there was no guarantee it would bring more of the hard-to-find item.
“There’s a shortage,” said a worker at the CVS in Stillwater. “Everybody’s asked all day long. It started with masks, then hand sanitizer and zinc.”
Oklahoma City-County Health Department officials said once pharmacies ran out of masks, people went to hardware stores to get them.
But healthy people don’t need to wear a mask, and zinc, a popular cold-season supplement, doesn’t cure respiratory viruses, even though you can find that claim online, said Eddie Withers, the health department’s acute disease epidemiologist.
In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for most people in this country, the risk of infection or serious illness is low. Those at greatest risk are older people and those with chronic conditions, including heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.
Withers said people should stick to reliable sources of information — their county and state health departments and the CDC, which updates its website with the latest COVID-19 information two or three times a day.
“Let’s don’t panic. Let’s practice good protection,” Withers said.
The new strain of coronavirus that’s causing concern across the country emerged last year in China and has spread to nearly 70 locations around the world, the CDC said. On Jan. 30, U.S. Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency, which helps health care providers get and organize resources for potential widespread sickness. So far, federal officials have said, the illness is not spreading widely.
Five people in Oklahoma have been tested and all were negative for COVID-19. A sixth person is under investigation, with results pending.
Withers said people should stay aware.
“You need to start looking at the daily interactions you have with others and react just as if we are having a very bad flu season, which we are,” he said.
In Oklahoma, a lot of churches have stopped using a shared communion cup and holding hands to pray, and some are putting tissues and hand sanitizer in the pews, said Blaine Bolding, the health department’s emergency preparedness administrator.
“It’s all about exposure. It you’re being smart about your interactions you’re doing all you can do,” Withers said.
State health officials activated their emergency response plan on March 6 when they announced the first case of COVID-19 in Oklahoma had been confirmed. The patient is a male in his 50s from Tulsa County.
“The virus is here. We can’t stop it, but we can take steps to lessen its spread,” Bolding said.
As it spreads, officials might recommend canceling events or even closing schools if the situation calls for it, he said.
Edmond Public Schools is disinfecting buses and doubled down on cleaning water fountains and other areas with lots of personal contact, Superintendent Bret Towne said.
“Our biggest concern right now is looking ahead after spring break. We have a very mobile population who travel around the U.S. and out of the country,” Towne said.
It’s possible some students might need to be quarantined at home before returning to class depending on where they traveled, he said.
District officials are exploring how students could keep learning from home if a school is closed because of COVID-19 affecting a high number of students, teachers, staff or bus drivers. It’s much easier for secondary students to continue their studies remotely than elementary Towne said.
Officials also are looking at travel schedules for groups and clubs and monitoring their destinations for virus activity.
Kimberly Green, chief operating officer for a long-term care provider, said the company has taken an aggressive approach to keep COVID-19 out of its residential care facilities.
“We’re in the business of taking care of the frail and vulnerable,” Green said. “We cannot imagine losing one resident or client to this.”
Her employer, Diakonos Group, operates 20 skilled nursing and rehabilitation facilities, assisted living communities and care centers for adults with developmental disabilities. The company has 1,000 clients and 1,000 employees.
After a flu outbreak at two facilities, the company rolled out its emergency preparedness plan, Green said.
Each facility now has a three-month supply of gowns, masks and gloves stowed away in case of a shortage down the road and has instituted visiting hours twice daily rather than a come-and-go policy, she said.
All staff and visitors must pass through a sanitation station at the entrance. People with a fever or cough must stay away for 48 hours and those who have traveled on an airplane or to any COVID-19 hotspot aren’t allowed inside for 14 days, Green said.
“As things change, we might find there is something new we need to do,” she said. “An irritation to me is when people say everyone’s making a big deal about it.”
Healthy people who complain too much is being made of the situation don’t understand how vulnerable the residential care population is, Green said.
In the meantime, more Oklahomans feel compelled by news of the viral outbreak to change their habits. That could mean washing their hands more often and thoroughly. Or swiping the shopping cart handle with a germkilling wipe. It might mean skipping crowded venues, working from home when sick or finding a new way to greet a friend besides shaking hands.
The same advice comes around every fall for the flu season. But this time, with a world on alert, more people appear to be taking the messages to heart.
“Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org .”