Living through a global pandemic is strange for all the little reasons. For starters, everyone’s talking about the same thing every day. Powering through a cold to do your job is a mortal sin rather than a commendable trait. People talk about washing your hands so much, you start feeling like your hands are always dirty.
There’s increasingly nowhere to travel to and nothing to do, not in a crowd at least. Soon there may be no school, that is in the way we’ve viewed school for the last hundred years. Institutions like stock shows and music festivals that rolled around with the regularity of the seasons have been paralyzed by a handful of people with a cough.
To understand the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the globe, The Monitor spoke to local professionals in the medical and mental health fields about just how vulnerable the Rio Grande Valley would be if the novel coronavirus were to arrive here, and how people should react.
These experts are advising Valley residents to begin taking precautionary measures by keeping reasonable supplies of food and hygiene products on hand. But avoid panic-buying.
People over 60 or with underlying health issues should pay especially close attention to good hygiene practices and social distancing.
Dr. Jose Campo-Maldonado, an infectious disease expert with the UTRGV School of Medicine, said he would advise residents to keep from two to four weeks of supplies on hand.
“You do need some supplies in case you are asked to stay at home for surveillance or quarantine, so that’s the reason that you might need a couple of weeks of supplies,” he said. “I would think it’s reasonable to have two to four weeks, more than that, I don’t see that there is an advantage.”
According to Campo-Maldonado, having supplies in stock can especially help those who are considered at-risk, and avoid contact with large groups of people.
“If we get active spreading in the future here, then you want to minimize those trips, especially for those people who are older or sicker, then that would be reasonable to do. I mean at least a month for those individuals, I would say,” he said. “I would have it mostly just to minimize the trips. It doesn’t mean you can’t buy groceries later.”
But Campo-Maldonado also cautioned that people should avoid panic-buying and overstocking.
“If you take a lot more than you need, it may be affecting other people that need the same things you do, so be reasonable about those things and try not to accommodate more than what you’re going to need,” he said.
Maldonado specifically discouraged residents from purchasing face masks, unless they’re for an individual who’s sick.
“One thing that I want to emphasize, especially because it’s a threat to the healthcare providers and our ability to take care of patients, is the masks. You shouldn’t be wearing a mask if you’re not sick,” he said. “People who are trying to gather as many masks as they can could be harming access to them by healthcare providers who need them to take care of your family members or your loved ones.”
Currently, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the area. However, Campo-Maldonado said individuals should begin practicing hygiene techniques like hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, social distancing and avoiding touching one’s face.
“The immediate risk of getting it in this area is low, but over time that could change,” he said. “I think that the most important thing that people need to know is that we don’t have a vaccine. We don’t have treatment right now, so preventive measures are the most important thing.”
Campo-Maldonado said certain Valley populations could be especially vulnerable to the virus.
“In the Valley we have a lot of patients with diabetes, so that will be a population that we will be concerned about,” he said.
Individuals with heart disease or lung disease are also at risk, Campo-Maldonado said, along with the elderly.
“People that are 60, 65 years old, the mortality rate goes about 8%. When it’s over 80 years old it goes up to 40%, so usually those individuals are individuals who have other health problems,” he said. “The risk of coronavirus is about the same for everybody in terms of getting the disease, but the difference will be who is more likely to get sicker, and we know based on preliminary data from studies that have been released that people with underlying medical conditions or older adults are the ones who have a higher risk of getting complications from the disease. Still, a majority of the population do recover.”
Campo-Maldonado cautioned residents to look at travel plans carefully in the next few months while the pandemic rages across the globe.
“Travel can be risky,” he said. “Be aware that you may not have flexibility to come back, especially if you do some type of international travel.”
Despite recommendations from Campo-Maldonado and officials across the globe to avoid panic-buying, the phenomenon has gripped stores across the globe.
Valley grocers were inundated Friday with shoppers buying a variety of products they felt they needed to stock up on to get through the pandemic. Carts were stacked high with food, water, cleaning products and, interestingly, toilet paper.
Nations around the world have seen their populations buy an obscene amount of toilet paper in response to COVID-19, which isn’t known to cause any symptoms that would require the use of more toilet paper.
Nevertheless, there are videos on the internet of people fighting over packages of rolls and ominous photographs of empty shelves where toilet paper once sat. Locally, shoppers have also bought up a disproportionate amount of rolls, and there have been reports from convenience stores and restaurants of rolls in the bathroom mysteriously going missing.
The nonsensical hoarding has sparked jokes and ridicule, none of which answer the central question: Why are people buying toilet paper in a quantity they don’t need for a pandemic that won’t require it?
Letty Nering, a licensed professional counselor from Edinburg who has counseled a variety of clients over the past 40 years, said people who are stockpiling things they don’t really need might be doing so because they’re used to preparing for different types of catastrophes.
“People want to be proactive, and be prepared. Maybe they’re reverting back to hurricane preparation. Well, this is a totally different deal,” she said. “People are scared, and they want to do something, but there’s other things that can be done.”
Nering also said that people who are panic-buying might be doing so because they want to do something, anything, in the face of a crisis that’s increasingly frightening.
“People want to do something proactive, so we don’t want to label it as a horrible thing that they’re doing,” she said. “They’re trying to do something where they feel they’ll make a good difference in their lives, but maybe they need to go one step forward and ask, ‘Is this what we need to do?’”
Nering said there’s many things people who are nervous about the coronavirus can do. She said those practices would also be helpful in a self-quarantine situation.
“If you’re able to exercise, that’s a really good thing to do to ward off anxiety. Any practice like prayer or meditation, any creative art, drawing painting, singing. Anything that helps you to express yourself can also be a very good anxiety reducer,” she said. “Do something productive, it doesn’t have to be hectic. Just stay active.”