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Responding to coronavirus concerns as a primary care physician

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A virus that began in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019 has spread internationally. The coronavirus, now referred to as COVID-19, has been confirmed in 57 people in the US, including those who were onboard a cruise ship that had previously been quarantined. Across the globe, more than 80,000 cases have been reported with a death toll of more than 2,700. Naturally, many of your primary care patients will be near panic stage as news continues to spread about the growing number of infections.

As a primary care physician, you will be faced with a multitude of questions and concerns from your patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued guidelines and dispelled myths for patients who are worried about the rapid spread of COVID-19.

  • Travel: The biggest concern is whether it is safe to travel on airlines and cruise ships, particularly to destinations where the virus is prevalent. The CDC is recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China and South Korea. Older adults and patients with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel to Italy, Japan, and Iran.
  • Face Masks: Images of virtually everyone in China and other infected countries wearing face masks to protect themselves have your patients worried about whether they should also wear a face mask. WHO recommends that you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person who may be infected with COVID-19 or if you are coughing or sneezing yourself, to protect others from your possible infection.
  • Hand Washing: During flu season, it is always advisable to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, with soap and water, to prevent the spread of germs. Washing hands is critical during the coronavirus outbreak. You should regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub and then wash with soap and water to kill any viruses that may be on your hands.
  • Pneumonia Vaccines: At this time, researchers are still working on an effective vaccine for COVID-19. Vaccines against pneumonia, although highly recommended to protect your health, are not effective against the new coronavirus.
  • Hand Dryers, Alcohol Sprays, and Other Myths: Unfortunately, when a virus such as COVID-19 continues to spread and infect thousands of people across the globe, your patients will hear many words of advice that just aren’t true. As a primary care physician, you can guide your patients to a better understanding of the facts:
    • Hand dryers do not kill the coronavirus
    • UV lamps should be not used in an attempt to sterilize hands or other areas of the skin
    • Spraying alcohol or chlorine over the body will not kill viruses that already exist within the body
    • Domestic pets such as dogs or cats are not infected and cannot transmit the new coronavirus
    • Regularly rinsing the nose with saline will not protect you from being infected with COVID-19.

While people of all ages can be infected, older people and people with chronic or pre-existing conditions are more vulnerable to becoming ill. As a primary care physician, you can reassure your patients who have concerns about the new coronavirus by presenting the facts and dispelling the myths. Patients should take the necessary precautions to avoid being infected, just as they would for any virus, including following good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene.