Earlier this week, a CNN poll about the COVID-19 Coronavirus showed that 38 percent of the Americans polled said they would not purchase Corona beer — although the beverage has no link whatsoever to the virus.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a new strain of the Coronavirus that has been around for years, started in Wuhan, China in December, it has spread. There are currently more than 86,000 cases in 64 countries and territories, including more than 60 confirmed cases and one death in the United States.
Nearly 3,000 people have died worldwide from the virus so far, and all but about 100 of those were in China.
As the number of cases increases, so does the hysteria, as the CNN poll suggests. The Golden Triangle is no exception.
Charles Stanford, a salesman at New Home Building Store, a building supply company in Columbus, began to notice one manifestation of Corona virus fears just this week.
“Masks,” Stanford said. “Everybody wants masks. It’s like bread and milk during bad weather.”
New Home keeps a variety of dust masks on its shelves. By Friday, all that remained was a single box of 50 masks, which are intended not to prevent viruses but inhaling dust from worksites or paint inhalation.
“Normally, people buy smaller quantities in packs of five or 10,” Stanford said. “Those are all gone. We had four of the 50-count masks in stock. That’s a quantity people usually don’t want, so four boxes is (usually) about a year’s supply.”
Medical mask supplies also running low
The one mask recommended to protect against viruses is called the N95.
Leigh Walker, a sales representative for OxyCare Plus, a medical supply company in Columbus, said the demand for the N95 masks has exploded over the past two weeks.
“Here in the office, we’re getting 15 to 20 calls a day,” Walker said. “I visit 15 doctor’s offices and they all are asking for them, too. There just aren’t any. We’ve tried Walgreen’s, Walmart, Amazon, even eBay. You just can’t get them.”
Many of the OxyCare Plus customers are those most vulnerable to viruses — often older people who are already suffering from respiratory illnesses. For some of the patients, the fear is almost palpable.
“I know they are afraid,” Walker said. “Today, I just got a memo from the Centers for Disease Control. I have to read it and sign off on it. What they are recommending isn’t masks. They’re recommending we tell our patients to take the kind of precautions you would take with the flu — washing your hands, staying home if you’re sick and going to the doctor if you begin to have symptoms. That’s what we tell our customers. A lot of them still want the mask, though.”
Pharmacies have also noticed an increase in inquiries about the virus.
“We’ve definitely had people coming in looking for masks,” said B.J. Cougle, owner of B.J.’s Family Pharmacy in Starkville. “We don’t have any masks, but what we tell them is that they should take the precautions you normally take with the flu or any other virus.
“The truth is nobody really knows what to tell people,” he added. “China hasn’t really been very good neighbors as far as sharing information.”
In addition to masks, there have been some reports of people stocking up on prescription medicines. Although he hasn’t yet seen that at his pharmacy, Chris Bonner, who owns Chris’ Pharmacy in Columbus, said he wouldn’t be surprised if that sort of demand begins to emerge.
“China is a huge producer of pharmaceuticals,” Bonner said. “That could be an issue if the supply chain is disrupted. Years ago, there was an earthquake in China that really affected the supply of a couple of popular medicines. I can see conceivably where that could be an issue, but I haven’t seen it yet.”
‘There are no cases in Mississippi’
Coronavirus fear has manifested in another way — through the grapevine. One social media post said the virus was reported in Meridian.
That’s a claim Liz Sharlot, communications director for the Mississippi State Department of Health, quickly shut down.
“There are no cases in Mississippi and no cases under investigation in Mississippi,” Sharlot said. “In situations like this, it’s understandable that people are concerned. That’s natural. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation goes along with those fears sometimes.”
Sharlot said the best response remains practicing good hygiene and staying informed through reliable sources.
“We want to make sure people have accurate information,” Sharlot said. “What we recommend is that people visit our website (msdh.ms.gov) and also get our phone app (MS Ready). It’s a free app. When we get information, the phone app is the first place it goes to.”
Sharlot said MSDH has been planning in case of a virus outbreak for weeks, working with hospitals and clinics throughout the state.
“We’ve been assessing capacity, beefing up our lab capacity and offering guidance to other agencies,” Sharlot said. “This has been our highest priority.”
Hospitals, too, have put together plans to address the virus should it appear.
Working with MSDH, the plan at OCH Regional Medical Center in Starkville includes three main steps: Identify persons at risk for infection, isolate using the appropriate infection control and report suspected cases to MSDH.
“Our emergency department has added two questions for patients in our triage process –‘Have you traveled internationally?,’ and ‘Have you been in close contact with a person known to have the virus?,'” stated OCH Acute Care Manager Eddie Coats, a registered nurse. “Patients who answer yes to either of those questions will immediately go to one of our airborne isolation rooms.”
Baptist Medical Group — which operates 22 hospitals in three states, including Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle in Columbus — has been working on its strategy for six weeks, according to a statement sent to all its facilities.
The plan includes patient screening and isolation units as well as daily meetings and refresher training for hospital staff. Signage throughout their facilities inform visitors to alert hospital staff if they believe they are suffering flu symptoms. The Coronavirus mimics flu symptoms.
Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women are monitoring the spread of COVID-19, both schools announced in press releases. MSU is not approving travel to countries that the CDC has issued a Level 3 outbreak status, including China and South Korea, and discourages traveling to Level 2 countries, including Italy, Iran and Japan. All incoming patients at the MSU John C. Longest Student Health Center with cough, sneezing, sore throat, fever, and respiratory issues will be masked to protect other patients and asked to provide their recent travel history to determine if they are at risk for the Coronavirus.
Students and employees who have traveled in the past 14 days from areas impacted by the virus and who have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing should contact the Health Center or seek medical care immediately, the release states.
‘Stay calm and use good common sense’
Fear of the virus may begin to show up in other ways, too.
Marion Kohut, a travel agent with Roberts Travel in West Point, said fears may impact business.
“It’s hard to say if it’s had any effect so far,” Kohut said. “We haven’t had any cancellations. On the other hand, we haven’t had the amount of bookings we normally have. I can’t tie that directly to the virus, but people may be waiting to see how it goes before planning trips.
“We don’t book a lot of travel to China, but we do travel to Italy,” he added. “The virus is there now, so if it affects us, travel to Italy is where we’ll see it. Of course, the virus is spreading to other countries, so the impact could be pretty serious. We just don’t have any way of knowing right now.”
That fear of the unknown, although understandable, is counter-productive, Sharlot said.
“The best defense right now is to stay calm and use good common sense,” Sharlot said. “At some point, if the virus becomes community-transmitted here in Mississippi, we’ll be ready to implement measures to address that. But we are not at that point now. That’s why it’s important for people to stay informed with accurate information.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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