As a school administrator, I have spent considerable time of late responding–and assisting others in responding–to the current public health crisis.
I receive lots of questions due to my position and my work in a public school. Our media seem to send us sensationalized and charged messages that can cloud a meaningful view of the facts.
My school district in central New Jersey has required students and staff to remain home and carry out a distance-learning plan in order to keep children engaged and learning for the duration of our time away from school. Moreover, Governor Phil Murphy has issued a stay-at-home order severely restricting movements and interactions among people. This, we understand, will mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the risk for people vulnerable to this disease.
These measures are consistent with recommendations issued by institutions from the World Health Organization, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to our local health departments. This should give us confidence in the civic leaders and school superintendents who are working hard to serve the public.
Many people, however, wonder what degree of danger we currently face and how to discuss it with children. Indeed, we have seen instances of public panic on some levels, particularly last week when reports depicted bare shelves in supermarkets.
But given the precautions in place, our circumstances warrant concern but not alarm.
A recent release by the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Oxford University, provides detailed data of infection rates and case fatality rates. The report analyzes figures by country, by age groups, and by risk-factor profile. We can take comfort in knowing that the statistical risk faced by any particular person is low.
In Italy, for example, where the burden on medical facilities has been the most dramatic, roughly one-tenth of one percent of the population has been infected. That is one in one thousand. With a case fatality rate over nine percent in that same country, we understand the need for their quarantine. Statistically, however, while the typical Italian citizen may possibly know someone who has come down with COVID-19, he or she is unlikely to know anyone personally who will die from it.
This does not diminish the importance of every human life, but it does offer some perspective. Italy found itself at a disadvantage because its government and health officials reacted late to the crisis.
Here in America, we have learned from what has happened in Italy. Isolation and precautions are in place that not only minimize the remote risk that each individual faces, but more importantly, they slow the spread of disease and ensure that our hospitals will have the capacity to treat those who are infected. This, in turn, protects the elderly and those whose preexisting conditions leave them highly vulnerable.
So the real cause for concern would come about if our current precautions were not in place. But as things are, if we all adhere to the restrictions, some months will pass, and many of us will wonder whether all of the inconvenience had truly been necessary.
To be sure, in global statistical terms, every COVID-19 victim infects two or three other people, and without our current response, many people would get sick. We need to adhere to our public health strategy: staying at home, interacting only with those who live with us, venturing out only for physically isolated exercise or for provisions, washing our hands and sanitizing things we bring into the home, eating well, and keeping up our social relationships electronically. In the process, we should also take care to call our friends and loved ones who live alone, are old, or suffer from conditions that make them vulnerable to illness. We must make sure they have what they need, and if we are called upon to assist, we must follow the proper protocols.
But as we do so, we can assure ourselves and our children that this is a time for keen attention and for patience, but not for undue anxiety.