From the American Medical Association’s Senior News Writer, Sara Berg
February 21, 2020
As the number of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases continues to rise, patients may worry about their risk and safety. To help ease patients’ concerns about COVID-19, JAMA Associate Editor Preeti Malani, MD, shared some important advice for physicians and other health professionals.
Dr. Malani is the chief health officer and professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She co-wrote the JAMA Viewpoint, “2019 Novel Coronavirus—Important Information for Clinicians,” with Carlos del Rio, MD, an infectious diseases physician in Atlanta.
“It’s a scary sounding story and the story keeps changing, and—for good or bad—some of the media coverage can make people a little bit nervous when there might be an article that reports of dangers out of proportion to what the actual risk is,” she said. “In the United States, for most people, the risk is extremely low.”
The AMA encourages physicians to stay up to date on this evolving situation and has provided COVID-19 resources for doctors, other health professionals and the public. The AMA will provide continual updates.
In a recent AMA interview, Dr. Malani offered this advice for physicians and other health professionals to help calm patients who might be worried about COVID-19.
Call before coming into the office
Because it is flu season, “It’s probably a good idea to call in general. If you have respiratory infection or seasonal flu, whether you need to be seen right away or not just depends,” said Dr. Malani. Whether communicating through a patient portal or on-call nurse, patients can often get effective advice before making an in-person visit.
This may also be different for each person. If someone has several medical issues, “it might be concerning enough that the doctor might want to prescribe an antiviral,” she said.
It’s not a good time to visit China
The U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued warnings about nonessential travel to China, Dr. Malani explained.
“Novel coronavirus is certainly a concern but, in general, travel to China is disrupted right now because of this,” Dr. Milani said. “For patients, it’s just not a good time to go to China unless it’s absolutely essential.”
Practice basic prevention
Physician practices and hospitals are seeing an uptick in flu cases. To combat this, patients should follow time-test preventive habits.
“The basics around prevention are always important, beginning with just having clean hands and staying away from people who are sick,” said Dr. Malani, adding that people should also cover their cough and sneeze. And keep sick children home from school.
“That is actually a real risk and that’s concerning,” she said.
This is also a good opportunity for physicians to remind patients that it is not too late to get a flu shot. Read more from the AMA about the nine questions your patients may have about the flu vaccine.
If well, no need for a mask
Some patients are the worried well and might wear a face mask, but there is “little benefit to wearing a mask,” said Dr. Malani, adding that “the CDC does not recommend that people wear face masks to protect themselves from respiratory viruses.” This includes COVID-19.
However, “on the flip side, if you are ill, a lot of practices and hospitals as you walk in have alcohol-based hand sanitizer and a box of masks,” she said. “You can certainly pop a mask on over your face if you are ill.”
Physicians and other health professionals caring for a patient with COVID-19 must take proactive measures in protecting their own health too. Learn with the AMA about the eight ways to protect doctors caring for patients with COVID-19.
Risk remains low in the U.S.
Patients might worry that they are at risk for COVID-19. It is still unclear how the situation will unfold, but a person’s risk is dependent on exposure, says the CDC.
“If you haven’t had personal travel to China—really to the most affected area of China in Hubei Province and Wuhan City—the risk is almost nothing,” said Dr. Malani.
At this article’s deadline, there were 15 confirmed U.S. cases of COVID-19. However, only two of those cases were human-to-human transmission, which is “reassuring,” she said.
Read this firsthand account of how an Illinois hospital cared for two patients with COVID-19 and protected their physicians and health professionals.
If you visited China, heed the signs
“There is not a lot of traffic coming back and forth from China and so a lot of the people who returned from China have now been here for a week, two weeks or longer,” said Dr. Malani. “Their risk of developing infection is also lower because the longer that they’re out, the less likely it is.
“In terms of people who’ve been to China or been to Asia and they’re just concerned, some of the practical advice is to really be aware of your body and if you have anything that doesn’t feel right, any aches or pains or headache, especially fever, is to keep yourself at home” and call your doctor, she said.
If physicians have questions, they should call their local or state health department, said Dr. Malani.
“It’s a good idea for physicians in the United States to get to know their public health colleagues,” she added. “We often don’t communicate except when there’s an emergency, but we should be communicating. That’s a message that’s been lost in all this.”