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Editorial: Avoid burdening system by flattening curve of coronavirus spread

Some Rowan Countians see the rush to cancel and postpone events as an overreaction for something that has resulted in 23 confirmed or presumed positive cases in North Carolina.

Why after less than two dozen cases in our state (none of which are in Rowan) would people cancel events or close institutions at a breakneck pace?

The governor mandated that schools close for two weeks, churches plan stream services online or excuse members from attendance, sports have stopped at all levels and most events are canceled or postponed. Those have all occurred in just the previous three days. As concern about COVID-19 heightened and the governor ordered a halt to gatherings of 100 or more, it became hard to keep up with plans of community institutions.

But the action being taken nationally, statewide and locally is necessary. The community must work to collectively “flatten the curve.”

The flatten-the-curve theory focuses on the fact that delaying the spread of the virus could prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed by a rapid spike in cases. In other words, if Rowan County were to see 100 serious cases of coronavirus over a period of several months, health care facilities would be able to deal with an outbreak better than if all 100 occurred in just a month or so.

Hospitals don’t tend to operate with a lot of empty beds, especially in the middle of flu season. And a widely shared Facebook post Friday by John Bream, medical director of the Emergency Department at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, said the hospital was at capacity already. It has 268 beds. Those beds include 203 for general use, 10 for rehab, 40 for psych and 15 for substance abuse, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Health Service Regulation. Bream said the hospital may need to stop elective surgeries to make space for life support.

To be clear, the World Health Organization says most people diagnosed with COVID-19 will suffer from a mild illness, but it can make some people very ill. And those who become very ill could be hospitalized for a number of days and require ventilators, Bream wrote. It won’t be a rapid recovery, and even a flattened curve may top what heath care facilities can provide.

But it will help that Novant Health plans to put up a triage tent outside of the Rowan Medical Center emergency department. In the tent, patients with symptoms common for COVID-19 — fever, cough or shortness of breath — will be screened.

To gain adequate control of the virus and the disease it causes, people must have access to testing — something that hasn’t been the case of late. Testing criteria has been too strict even as medical professionals believe community spread is here.

And tests have been in short supply. Mecklenburg County’s health director, for example, said Friday that there were only three test kits from the state for COVID-19. That’s in a county with more than 1 million people.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said at a Saturday news conference things have improved. Testing criteria now only include those who have a fever, cough and have tested negative for the flu. Private companies also can now order tests instead of just state labs.

“Our team has been working night and day to increase testing. Our testing capacity is coming up. There are supply chain issues, but we are increasing access,” Cohen said.

She said people who have symptoms of COVID-19 and are told “no” to testing by their doctor should call the local health department, which can conduct tests or direct the person to a place where tests are available. The Rowan County Health Department’s phone number is 704-216-8777.

Most important, this cannot be a time for us to panic. It is a time for caution and preparation. That means each of us must do our part to ensure we are practicing good hygiene.

Practice social distancing, which means avoiding large crowds for prolonged periods of time. Wave at strangers instead of shaking their hands. Stay home if you feel sick. When possible, employees should be able to work from home.

At the end of the outbreak — however far away that is — it will be difficult to know whether we overreacted. But it will be easy to tell if the country didn’t do enough.

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