New normals: self-isolation, social distancing

For now, the concepts are playing out in Iowans' lives

Michihiko Goto, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa specializing in infectious disease
Michihiko Goto, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa specializing in infectious diseases, works March 11 in his home office in Iowa City. Goto recently returned from Japan and, following the recommendation of health officials, decided to self-isolate. Still asymptomatic, he plans to return to work Tuesday. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — State public health officials are ramping up efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in Iowa, which includes monitoring those at-risk for an infection and requesting those who traveled to an impacted country to isolate themselves.

And as the number of presumptive positive test results in Johnson County increased the past week, county officials and local agencies prepared for more potential spread and Iowans grappled with their new normal for now.

For some, normal is self-isolation until the risk for infection is gone.

For others who worry about the consequences this respiratory virus could have on themselves or their loved ones, they prepare to social distance themselves and wait out the storm.

Michihiko Goto, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, is among those helping coordinate responses to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

However, he’s sending emails and joining conference calls from home — not the office.

Goto, along with two of his children, are self-isolating after recently traveling abroad to a country impacted by the respiratory virus that has infected thousands worldwide. .

Iowa City-based software engineer Misha Bergal also is working from home in light of the pandemic, but not due to any directive from public health officials.

Bergal, 49, is choosing to self-isolate out of an abundance of caution — not for himself, but for his 86-year-old mother who lives at home with him. He worries what would happen if his mother, who has dealt with respiratory health complications this past year, would fall ill.


According to State Epidemiologist and Iowa Department of Public Health Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati, there are different levels of avoiding public contact depending on the level of risk the person is at for the novel coronavirus.

In self-isolation under auspices of health officials, Iowans are asked not to go to school or work and are asked to “keep to yourself as much as you can,” Pedati said Tuesday during a media briefing. But they are allowed to do activities such as go for a walk.

Public health officials also check in with these individuals twice a day to monitor for symptoms.

“The general idea is that we’re asking you to stay away from other people,” Pedati said.


During the week the Goto family left for Japan to visit family, the only known cases of the novel coronavirus were those aboard the Diamond Princess Cruise ship. According to reports, the ship was in Japanese waters Feb. 4 when the first 10 passengers were diagnosed.

The Iowa City family spent nearly two weeks visiting family members in Japan, which included stops in Tokyo and in Goto’s hometown in the southwestern part of the country.

However, on March 3 — the day after the Iowa City family returned — the Iowa Department of Public Health asked any Iowans returning from countries where COVID-19 is spreading to voluntarily isolate themselves for 14 days.

Among the list of countries in the travel notice was Japan.

By then, the number of cases in Japan had risen to more than 260 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization.

The request to isolate doesn’t apply to Goto’s wife and oldest child, who did not travel to Japan, which has been helpful to their situation. Without someone to do the grocery shopping or run other errands, Goto said he’s not sure how the family would have gotten by.

“As long as we stay asymptomatic they have no restrictions,” said Goto, 41.

Goto said he feels fortunate that many components of his work can be done remotely. Work that can’t be done remotely, such as his clinical appointments, are being handled by his co-workers at the university. As far as he knows, he’s the first individual in his department who has had to self-isolate in light of the COVID-19 outbreak worldwide.

The request to self-isolate does not impact community members equally, Goto said.


While isolation was not necessarily a large burden on his family, and he believes following public health recommendations is vital, Goto said he does “feel for those people who might not be able to comply” — particularly those living paycheck to paycheck who would miss a portion of their income.

“We, as a society or community, really need to be considerate to people who got affected directly or indirectly and improve our system to support each other,” Goto said. “This rapidly evolving situation is also revealing the cruel nature of inequality and disparity in our community.”

Goto plans to go back to work Tuesday and his children will return to school once they’re able.

Social Distancing

Social distancing is the practice of avoiding close or frequent interactions to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. As a part of these measures, businesses across the country are asking their employees to work from home if they can.

Public health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have increased their calls for Americans to increase their social distancing practices.

The city of Cedar Rapids also encouraged residents to “practice social distancing.”

“We’re encouraging all Cedar Rapids residents, especially our senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions, to think carefully about attending events and large gatherings,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said in a statement.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, called on the Iowa Legislature to enact proposals to push back deadlines and allow lawmakers to take a two to three week recess until the risk is reduced.

He stayed home from the session this past week, saying “I do not think we are taking this seriously enough.”

“Part of the reason I’m home today is because I listen to what public health experts say,” Hogg said last week. “I’m not going to the capital to fuel the petri dish that the Capitol is. I’m going to be home and be responsible for myself, and I hope other legislatures, other legislative leaders and the governor takes this seriously, too.”


The Health Department said Thursday it was not making any recommendations to cancel planned events and mass gatherings “at this time.”

The department did encourage high risk groups — including older adults and those with chronic health conditions — to limit close contact with others and to avoid crowds.

Bergal, however, said he hopes more can be done to encourage the public to start engaging in these measures to mitigate the risk for an outbreak locally.

For him, the concept means he will limit his time in public spaces as much as possible over the next two months.

“I think we need to start social distancing,” Bergal said. “It’s up to individuals to actually do something and if possible, not to isolate but at least distance yourself from other people.”

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