3 Things You Should Know about COVID-19 from a Chronically-Ill Scientist
I’m a psychologist, not an epidemiologist. But I have a PhD with advanced training in quantitative research and statistics, so I learn from reading science rather than from the media. I also have an autoimmune disease and live with chronic illness. That makes me a scientist with skin in the game. So, after reading the science about this virus, here are three things I want everyone to know about the COVID-19 outbreak.
1. A science lesson
For most people, catching the virus won’t make you too miserable. Your symptoms, if any, won’t feel any worse than a cold or flu. But, for those of us with chronic medical conditions, it can cause fatal pneumonia. Here’s how: COVID-19 is actually another SARS virus. It’s full acronym is SARS-COV-2 which stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus (COV) -2.
It’s believed that its ability to bind to our cells is 1000 times greater than other viruses and it’s 20 times more likely to bind to our cells. It’s more infective than the flu. The virus attaches to the ACE2 receptor enzyme in human cells. ACE2 receptors are found in the lungs, heart, small intestines, and throughout entire cardiovascular system. A normal immune response is localized to fight this invasion. But people with abnormal immune function will be subjected to a cytokine storm that creates widespread inflammation and cellular damage. Cytokines will make the air sacs in the lungs more permeable, allowing them to fill with fluid. The result is a severe pneumonia, and the damage to the lungs and even the heart can be permanent. The most severe cases of this pneumonia will require mechanical ventilation in the ICU. (See the math lesson below for the problem with this.)
2. A math lesson
The steps we are taking as a community to prevent the spread of this virus are grounded in simple supply and demand. Hospitals can only accommodate so many patients. There are only so many beds in the ICU and so many mechanical ventilators available. There are only so many health care providers who are healthy enough themselves to care for the sick. You’ve heard the term “flattening the curve”? Instead of trying to manage a spike in infections that overload the health care system all at once, the goal is to reduce the rate in which people become infected so that the health care system can keep up. Otherwise, there will not be enough hospital beds to accommodate the number of severe cases if we don’t reduce the rate in which this virus spreads. It’s that simple.
3. A social studies lesson
We do not live in isolation. Our actions impact others—in our families, workplaces, classrooms, social circles, churches, shopping centers, public transportation—anywhere we gather. The impact of this virus on your own health may be minimal. But this is about more than you.
As a society, if we care about others then we’ll care about reducing the impact of this virus on others. We’ll stop posting toilet paper memes on social media and have honest candid conversations with each other about the risks to the millions (yes, millions) of people in our country living with autoimmune illness, heart or lung disease, and other underlying medical conditions. If we care about others, we’ll stop criticizing the government for shutting down our country and start doing our part to protect the oldest members of our society—our parents and grandparents. If we care about others, we’ll stop being angry and irritated about the temporary inconveniences and show our children what it means to do the right thing in the face of adversity.
We are called to love our neighbor. If we love our neighbor, we’ll protect our neighbor. So, I am asking that without panic, without anger, without political judgement, without irritation, without complaining, without sarcasm…protect your neighbor. And with empathy, with patience, with love, with sincerity…protect your neighbor. It’s about more than just you.
Oh, and read the science. Here’s a selection to get you started:
From my brain (and heart) to yours –