Sue Smith Jackson: Buying water won’t save you from the coronavirus

(Gillian Flaccus | AP file photo) Shoppers visit a Costco Wholesale in Tigard, Ore., Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, after reports of Oregon's first case of coronavirus was announced in the nearby Oregon city of Lake Oswego on Friday.

Shopping last weekend, I watched countless individuals stack cases of water into their carts. I saw a sign at Walgreens saying all its face masks were sold out.

I get it, people are scared, but calm down, Utah!

Having a Ph.D. in health and a decade of experience teaching epidemiology at Utah Valley University, let me share some thoughts on transmission and preparedness techniques.

Let’s start with the obvious — the statistical likelihood of getting the new coronavirus (COVID-19) right now is very low. You have a higher probability of getting almost anything else. Want to worry about a disease? Worry about influenza. COVID-19 has caused six fatalities in the U.S. this year. The flu has killed 18,000.

[Read more: Utah will start its own coronavirus testing, but general risk remains low, state says]

COVID-19 does appear to have a higher fatality rate (somewhere between 1% and 2%) than seasonal flu, which is around 0.1%. Understand, though, that fatality rate is calculated by taking the number of deaths over the number of cases. I doubt that Wuhan has accurately measured all those sick, especially less severe cases, which would artificially inflate the fatality rate.

I predict we will see the fatality rate decrease as the disease spreads through countries with more consistent disease reporting. Personally, I’m watching Italy, which currently shows a much lower fatality rate than China.

I do think we will see a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. It appears there are asymptomatic carriers (symptomless infected individuals) which makes containment difficult. Some epidemiologists predict COVID-19 will infect 70% to 80% of Americans by the time a vaccine is ready for mass distribution.

But, despite Hollywood films and shows depicting uncontrollable pandemics sweeping the world and killing the masses, the hype and hysteria are unwarranted. We haven’t seen anything like that worldwide in a century (1918-1920, to be exact). It’s not to say that couldn’t happen, but I think the progression of medicine and public health make such an extreme possibility less likely.

If you’re still concerned about COVID-19, here’s what I suggest:

1. Wash your hands with soap and hot water. Use sanitizer when washing isn’t possible. Only wear face masks if you have active symptoms or are treating someone with symptoms. Mass use of face masks is not recommended because it increases face-touching, which increases disease transmission. Also, stop touching your face.

2. Purchase a reasonable amount of your favorite sick day supplies. COVID-19 has symptoms similar to the flu. My list includes Tylenol, ibuprofen, cough drops, Nyquil, Kleenex and Gatorade. I also recommend an ear or forehead thermometer and a finger pulse oximeter.

3. Prepare for the (distant) possibility of quarantine. The government can quarantine without notice and by force of law. Do you have enough supplies to last through a two- or three-week quarantine at home? Do you have the right supplies? I’m assuming all the people buying water at Costco only drink bottled water, because otherwise I have no idea what they are doing.

Even in the event of an epidemic and a city-wide quarantine, the water supply should be fine. You don’t need a generator, camp stove, a hundred pounds of wheat or other extreme survival preparedness. You need pantry food and toilet paper.

4. Think through finances. Can you work remotely if quarantined? If not, can you financially survive without 2-3 weeks of pay? Do you know which hospitals, instacare offices and doctors take your insurance? Do you have enough of your essential medications to survive without notice?

If I were a betting woman, my money would be on this all blowing over before Utah quarantines entire cities. Regardless, a little prep isn’t a bad idea. But, can we stop the mass hysteria of water-buying? I’m pretty sure your tap water will be fine, even if you are quarantined.

Sue Jackson, PhD, MPH

Sue Smith Jackson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Public and Community Health at Utah Valley University, where she teaches a course on epidemiology.