Don’t take public health for granted and do what you can to stop the spread of COVID-19
Author: Lyndi Buckingham-Schutt, PhD, RDN, LD, Harkin Institute Associate Director of Wellness and Nutrition Policy
Senator Harkin once said: “We all understand the paradox of public health: When it’s done with excellence, public-health catastrophes don’t happen… people take [this] for granted, which makes it easier for politicians to slash funding. We need to change this dynamic… I’m calling for you to become champions and evangelists for public health. This means speaking up in meetings, public forums, and budget hearings. It means publishing op-eds and letters to the editor. It means never assuming your fellow citizens understand the lifesaving importance of the work that you do.”
Those words should resonate with every American during this time of health, economic and social turmoil. We all play a role in the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic and we all need to be a part of the solution – to “change this dynamic.” We need to consider the long-term implications on our county and our attitudes towards public health, but there also is a lot we can do in the short-term, as individuals, neighbors, consumers and constituents.
Public health and health care experts are calling on us to practice “social distancing.” The goal of social distancing is to reduce the rate of transmission of the disease. We reduce the rate of transmission by limiting interactions with other people. How do we limit interactions with others? To put it plainly, you need to stay home and not interact with others outside of your home. If you have to leave your home or selected venue of isolation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended you take the following precautions:
- avoid crowds – the CDC updated its mass gathering guidance to postpone any events with 50 or more people for the next eight weeks, and on Friday, President Trump recommended avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people,
- understand how the disease spreads in order to prevent transmission,
- practice proper sanitation behaviors including washing your hands, using hand sanitizer if you touch shared objects/spaces, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands,
- if you do go out, avoid close contact with others especially those who are high risk and at-risk populations.
If you do decide to self-isolate, have supplies on hand and prepare to stay at home for a two-week period of time (if not longer). That means medications, medical supplies and, of course, food. Although I almost always recommend fresh food when available, this is the time to consider using canned, frozen, and unsweetened dried options. They are self-stable, easy to use, and have the same (if not higher) nutritional value as the fresh produce. Other pantries staples to consider: pasta, quinoa, and other grains (try to make at least half of your grains whole grains), nuts and nut butters, seeds, beans (dried or canned), soup stocks, meat and poultry (they all freeze well). Consider some treats, including frozen 100% fruit bars, the fixing for smore’s, ingredients for chocolate chip cookies, and snack items like popcorn, instant oatmeal, string cheese, or granola bars.
If you think you have COVID-19, follow the recommended steps to get receive care:
- stay home when you are sick,
- call your health care provider’s office BEFORE you visit,
- do not interact with other people (at work, at home, in your community),
- limit visitors to your home and visits inside your home (protect your family members).
Self-isolation is especially hard on certain groups of people. This is a stress and anxiety-inducing time for many and it is can be worse for those with preexisting mental health conditions. If you are feeling a heightened sense of anxiety during this time share that information with your family, friends, and health care providers. It is also a good time to start or continue practicing self-care to reduce stress while maintaining a safe distance from others, including:
- going for a walk, hike, picnic, or bird watching,
- meditation, yoga, deep breathing (check out one of the many apps and YouTube tutorials for guidance),
- connect with family and friends virtually,
- enjoy new or old activities (puzzles, board games, classic movies),
- take a break from reading the news, including social media.
For additional tips and information go to the CDC’s Manage Anxiety & Stress website.
A big stress and anxiety inducer for parents is related to school closures. Kids are at home with parents or other caretakers who may not have the time or expertise to keep kids learning while schools are closed. Companies are stepping up with free resources like Scholastic’s “Learn From Home” website, and I know teachers in my community have offered to support families as they transition to at-home learning.
This is a perfect example of how we can step up as a community. Check in on your neighbors, friends and family members. Encourage others to practice self-isolation and care but understand the limitations of that for certain people. If your community members are not able to isolate, be understanding and offer them support. This includes our grocery and retail workforce that continues to work so that we have places to go to buy food and supplies. Be extra kind to them during this time and offer your thanks and gratitude. And for those who must isolate (high and at-risk populations), reach out and ask how you can help.
The burden of this crisis extends well beyond our individual and community interactions. Business are suffering. Employees are unable to work. Families that typically rely on free and reduced-price school lunch programs are uncertain how they’ll feed their children. We can offer our support in a variety of ways, including:
- supporting local charitable food networks that are working on the front line to get food to individuals and families that are struggling right now,
- buying gift cards to local stores and getting take-out from local restaurants or vendors.
- looking for ways to support those most affected by COVID-19, including donating to groups that are forming to help people without health insurance, gig economy workers and others.
Last, but certainly not least, use your voice as a constituent. There are a number of ways our state and federal governments can act now to mitigate some of the huge health, economic and social repercussions of the epidemic. Call your decision-makers and ask what they are doing to support Americans during this time of need. If you’ve been affected, share your story. If you have knowledge or expertise in a specific area (e.g., health care), use your knowledge to inform them on the benefits of expanding care.
For example, now is a time to invest in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest federal nutrition program that provides additional money to supplement the food budget of needy individuals and families. Not only will investing in SNAP help the growing number of people that are struggling financially and food insecure as a result of COVID-19, it will boost the economy. SNAP is the leading counter-cyclical government assistance program, meaning that during times of economic downturn more at-need households will use the assistance, which in turn stimulates the economy by increasing the incomes and spending of others (farmers, retailers, food processors and food distributors, as well as their employees). Spending on SNAP has a ripple effect throughout our economy, starting a multiplier process that supports macroeconomic spending and production.
Track what is happening locally by visiting your state’s public health department website. A listing of state and local health department sites is available here.
During this challenging and unprecedented time, I encourage you all to take action – as an individual, neighbor, consumer, and constituent. Senator Harkin said public health means never assuming your fellow citizens understand the lifesaving importance of the work you do. The “work” we do over the coming weeks can be lifesaving and I implore you to act in a way that embraces our national and community values.