Guest Columnist

To fight coronavirus in Iowa: Good hygiene, free testing, more telemedicine

Advice from a former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health

Medical staff wearing protective suits take samples from a driver with suspected symptoms of the coronavirus at a #x201c
Medical staff wearing protective suits take samples from a driver with suspected symptoms of the coronavirus at a “drive-through” virus test facility in Goyang, South Korea, Sunday, March 1, 2020. South Korea has been praised for conducting widespread testing during the virus outbreak. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

All too often, like the boy who cried “wolf,” the word “crisis” is casually tossed about to grab attention or stir emotions. Unfortunately, “crisis” understates the imminent threat that the coronavirus outbreak poses to our personal and collective health and economic future.

We know almost instinctively what to do when floods or tornadoes strike, but many feel powerless in this pandemic. To contain the disease and minimize its effects, everyone must act to lead us through what lies ahead.

Foremost are personal efforts to protect your health and those around you. You have heard this before, but the single most effective thing you can do is wash your hands with soap and warm water frequently – even up to once an hour. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or your elbow crook when you cough or sneeze. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Eat a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables (frozen or canned) and get proper sleep.

If you are over 65 and or have pre-existing health conditions like lung disease, diabetes or are immunosuppressed, remain homebound and limit interaction. Social distancing is highly effective in limiting spread of the coronavirus. Healthy individuals age 50 to 65 are also at risk and must limit public interactions.

If you have flu-like symptoms, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care. Call your provider, urgent care clinic or emergency room before going in person. Medical personnel will advise you if you need to be evaluated in person. Frequently clean and disinfect hard surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs, countertops, touchscreens and cell phones.

Our traditional, heroic volunteerism in the face of a natural disaster can be tremendously beneficial, now more than ever. Young adults and teenagers can electronically organize groups to individually babysit for parents – especially healthcare professionals, first responders, police, firefighters and food service workers – who cannot work from home.

Visit your elderly homebound neighbors, either virtually or from outside, maintaining social distancing. Volunteer to prepare or pick up meals and deliver them to the homebound. If you have a favorite restaurant, offer to deliver meals for 1 or 2 hours a day for free. My husband and I are going to do this to help small businesses survive through the pandemic. One caveat, do not do volunteer work if you have a fever or cough!

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We need free and vastly more available coronavirus testing. As a former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, I suggested more funding for the agency. A $525,000 appropriation was made to the State Hygienic Laboratory for testing kits; it’s possible more will be required.

Drive-by testing should be fast-tracked and implemented immediately. We need to know who has symptoms or is ill and how many are infected but asymptomatic. Restrictions on telemedicine should be temporarily lifted and all insurers should reimburse such care.

We should develop a volunteer healthcare workforce through temporary licensure of physicians, nurses and physician’s assistants who have retired or whose licenses lapsed. My husband and I – both former Army medical professionals – would be willing to volunteer to reduce the potential burden on current health care personnel, as I am sure other former Army active duty and reserve members would.

Immunity should be granted to volunteer healthcare providers and expanded telehealth service unless conduct is significantly outside the standard of care. This approach also should become part of our preparedness planning. State and federal lawmakers should also loosen unemployment compensation rules for those who are temporarily out of work or see their work hours reduced; temporarily increase in SNAP benefits and low-interest small business loans; temporarily defer student loan repayments; and suspend FICA tax collection for up to 90 days.

Our “best selves” prevail in any disaster because we come together to help others. A pandemic differs because we must maintain distance and hygiene, but not in how we respond in spirit and action. Iowa and America have always risen to the challenge and we will do so again.

Mariannette Miller-Meeks represents District 41 in the Iowa Senate. She is an ophthalmologist, former president of the Iowa Medical Society and former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

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