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Edelman: Fauchi, most levels of government providing sound advice for dealing with coronavirus outbreak

Our immune system is a pretty remarkable thing. It consists of several moving parts, white blood cells, the organs that produce them, proteins and tissues. The immune system maintains a memory of the pathogens, mainly bacteria and viruses, that it encountered as we grew up and were exposed to them. It has a triggering system that goes to work when one of those pathogens reenters our body — when they do, the immune system is ready to do battle with them to keep us healthy.

The immune system doesn’t come with a directory of cold viruses or harmful bacteria. We have to be exposed to them first, so they can be recognized. This means that when a virus that our immune system doesn’t recognize enters your body, the virus has a head-start in doing what viruses do, which is usually to make us sick. Eventually, if our immune systems are healthy, we get the better of those invaders, we get over the cold or flu or sinus infection, and the next time that virus (or bacterium) is encountered, the immune system knows just what to do. It produces millions of white blood cells that recognize the invading virus and dumps them in the blood stream. They then locate and destroy cells that have been invaded and turned into virus-producing machines.

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When we get a flu shot, we are trying to give the immune system a head start on the flu by teaching it to recognize the virus in a safe way, usually with dead viruses (which is rather tricky, because viruses are barely alive to begin with). Vaccine producers need to show that the vaccine is effective, i.e., that it immunizes us, and also that it’s safe. That process takes time. Medical researchers cannot produce a vaccine for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, in four months, no matter how motivated they are.

That leads us to the next question: “If we can’t immunize ourselves against COVID-19, currently making its merry way across the globe, what can we do to protect ourselves?” And that is a very important question indeed, because this particular bug is pretty dangerous. The CDC has some very smart experts, and you can find their advice for protecting yourself at www.cdc.gov.

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All levels of government can help, and most of them do. In Maryland, the legislature and Gov. Hogan have worked to coordinate with health organizations; the state is trying to get test kits to identify people infected with the virus, and the state released rainy-day reserve funds to use to prevent the spread of the virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauchi, chief immunology expert at NIH, added his recommendations: limit travel and crowds, and “just don’t get on a cruise ship.” He said that the elderly and those with “underlying conditions” are “overwhelmingly” more likely to have complications if they catch the virus. Fauchi also said that the nation may have to reconsider its approach to large crowds and social gatherings if the condition worsens. And we’ve seen signs that people are listening. The world-renowned South by Southwest music conference was cancelled, and Johns Hopkins University is hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III basketball tournament without any spectators allowed.

Fauchi stated that there are two fundamental ways to manage the epidemic: containment and mitigation.

Containment is largely the process of keeping people from getting exposed to the virus; quarantining infected people would be effective, but for the fact that the country lacks sufficient facilities to isolate the many thousands of people who have been exposed to the virus, even if they could be identified. The World Health Organization points out another problem with quarantining: there aren’t enough medical workers to do it, and there isn’t enough personal protective equipment to keep them safe while treating the sick.

For you and me, risk mitigation is taking steps to prevent getting infected: you have probably heard the very common-sense steps we all should take, from frequently washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and disinfecting high-contact areas, such as kitchen surfaces, in your home. If you’re sick, stay away from work or school. And listen to Fauchi’s advice on crowds. Even the notoriously dirty New York subways are getting frequent scrubdowns now!

We depend on the government in times of risk to give us well-founded information and the kind of guidance that Fauchi and other experts in the field provide. Unfortunately, the message from the White House has been confused, misleading, or dangerous. Dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak is a serious public health matter, one that should never be politicized. Some things are just more important than a politician’s reelection strategy or fragile ego. This is one of them.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com

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