A Georgia DOT sign along I-285 warns motorists to isolate the elderly and chronically ill from the coronavirus on Monday, March 16, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Opinion: Think twice on virus testing and flatten the curve

Recent reports indicate that every person who wants a test for coronavirus can get one. What does that really mean?

The COVID-19 outbreak is a fluid situation, and health care professionals throughout Georgia are working tirelessly to help our patients and community understand the best course of action, even as the recommendations change frequently.

Above all, one piece of advice is critical — if you begin to feel sick, self-isolate at home and do not go immediately to the emergency room, urgent care, or a physician’s office for testing. While news and social media highlight the need for testing, most common illnesses are not COVID-19 and can be cared for with self-isolation and symptom management. The healthcare system is rapidly becoming overwhelmed. We need our clinicians to be able to focus on those who are most critically ill.

Your health care provider will determine if you need to be tested. Testing is most important if you are over age 60, have symptoms of a fever or respiratory infection, and one of the following:

  • Are sick enough to need to be in a hospital.
  • Have risk factors for a more-severe infection, like heart, lung, or kidney disease, diabetes, or a compromised immune system.
  • Work or live in a communal setting (e.g. a hospital, daycare, college dorm, or nursing home).

And what does “flattening the curve” mean? The message to stay home may seem to contradict what we usually tell people – if you feel sick, see your health care provider. In our current situation, however, staying home if you only feel minor symptoms will make a major difference and will help “flatten the curve.”

The curve refers to a projection of the number of people who will get sick. A high rate of infection like we are seeing with the current COVID-19 virus is illustrated by a steep curve – a lot of people becoming infected in a short period of time – and a health system that quickly reaches capacity and can no longer provide exceptional care for each patient.

A flatter curve means people get sick over a longer period of time, and the health care system is better able to treat those who come in, which improves each patient’s care and lowers mortality.

This is why the state of Georgia is implementing social distancing. COVID-19 is highly infectious, and to slow this rate of infection we are asking people to stay home for a period of time until the infection rate within our community slows down – we want to flatten the curve.

I mention this to let our community know that we are working to provide the necessary and appropriate care our community demands and deserves, and to keep our clinicians and other healthcare workers safe so they can continue to provide that exceptional care.

In our 24-hour information age, we are inundated with data from news media, the internet, friends and family. Here are tips from Emory Healthcare that will hopefully help readers sort through the information.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer made with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze and encourage others to do so.
  • Stay home if you are sick.
  • Avoid close contact with others who are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently used areas.
  • Get a flu shot.

What do I do if I have symptoms or have been exposed?

If you think you have COVID-19, the best thing to do is stay home and isolate yourself. Always call your health care provider before going to a health care facility. Avoid going to an emergency room unless you have symptoms like:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Persistent high fevers (higher than 100 degrees)
  • Worsening symptoms after you initially started to feel better

If you do go to a physician office or ER, please immediately put on a mask if you have symptoms.

Our physicians, researchers, nurses, and administrators are working 24/7 due to the changing nature of this situation. We review screening guidelines, how best to protect our front-line clinicians and staff, the status of our supplies and dozens of other related issues, in order to provide the best information and care to our community. We appreciate the trust you place in us and will continue to do the work that is required to earn that trust.

Jonathan S. Lewin, M.D., is president and CEO, Emory Healthcare.

» RELATED: Opinion | Local leaders’ insights on COVID-19 battle

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