Amid the ongoing health crisis, Newcastle Weekly spoke to leading Hunter doctor Lee Fong about the key details behind the coronavirus pandemic.
NEWCASTLE WEEKLY: What is COVID-19?
DR LEE FONG: COVID-19 is a new strain of the coronavirus. After starting off in the city of Wuhan, China, at the end of last year, it has since spread rapidly around the world.
NW: Why is it so concerning?
DR FONG: As a new strain of virus, nobody has immunity to it. We don’t have a vaccine for it either and it looks like it will be at least 12 months before one is available. These are some of the reasons why it is spreading so fast. On top of that, whilst four out of five infected people will have mild symptoms only, one in six need to be admitted to hospital, and one in 20 need an ICU bed.
The death rate is much higher than seasonal influenza – rising from one in 500 infected people for a 20-year-old, to one in six for an 80-year-old. People with other illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and immunosuppression are at higher risk as well.
If a lot of us get sick at the same time, more people will die because there aren’t enough ICU beds to go around, and then, instead of several hundred of us dying, it will be several thousand. So, the more we can slow the spread, the better.
NW: What precautions can people take to limit their risk of contracting the virus?
DR FONG: The virus is spread by infected droplets, so we need to stop the droplets spreading around the community. If you have a fever, cough or sore throat, keep your droplets at home for two weeks; if you sneeze or cough, catch the droplets in a tissue or your elbow; get the droplets off your hands by washing frequently and for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or use hand sanitiser; stop the droplets from infecting you by not touching your face with your hands; and clean the droplets off your phone by wiping it with 70% alcohol.
Try your best to keep to the social distancing rules: if you’re told to stay at home by your doctor then stay at home; avoid greeting people by shaking hands or hugging; try to keep 1.5m between you and other people; whenever possible, avoid crowds and small gatherings in small spaces; and avoid visiting vulnerable people, like the elderly in nursing homes.
NW: What can the Hunter Region expect in the coming weeks?
DR FONG: More people will become infected with the virus, and as more people become sick, more will become unwell, more will need hospital care, and more will die. Varying measures will be taken to try and keep the spread as slow as possible so those who need hospital care will be able to access it. It’s now up to us, as a community, to help ourselves and help each other, and give as many of us as possible the best possible chance to get through this.
NW: Are local hospitals equipped to handle patients with the virus?
DR FONG: Yes, our hospitals have done a huge amount of work to be as ready as they possibly can be. On the other hand, their resources are not unlimited. Again, we need to do our part to make sure hospitals aren’t overrun because we’re all sick at the same time.
NW: Should schools and workplaces be shut down during this time?
DR FONG: Workplaces and schools should do everything they can to reduce the possibility of spreading COVID-19 amongst their employees and children. For schools, that includes setting up systems like staggered bells to reduce mingling and crowding in between classes. For workplaces, that includes having as many people as possible working remotely where that is feasible. For private businesses, shutting down completely is a private decision or a government order. For schools, that is a government decision and, from the ongoing debate, clearly not a simple one to make.