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Joshua Wynne: Short-term pain for long-term gain

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Joshua Wynne
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The current situation with SARS-CoV-2 (aka coronavirus and COVID-19) is confusing and scary. The majority of people typically have mild or no symptoms. But several countries — China, South Korea and now northern Italy — have been or are being inundated with large numbers of very sick, often elderly, patients.

What truly is scary is how quickly the hospitals and health care systems in those countries (which especially in northern Italy and South Korea are excellent) became completely inundated and overwhelmed — in the case of Italy, over a time period of only a few weeks. But China and South Korea responded with very aggressive measures to limit the spread of the virus — and it has paid off, with a dramatic decrease in the number of new cases.

This is “flattening the curve,” referring to a curved line that reflects the rise in the number of new cases. A flattened curve rises less rapidly, doesn’t go as high, flattens and then falls over time. Perhaps even more importantly, countries like Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong responded early, and aggressively, and essentially stopped the outbreak before it gained a foothold.

So what accounted for this dramatic change? Part of it was due to effective identification and isolation of people spreading the disease through widespread viral testing. Part of it was due to common-sense public health measures like washing one’s hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds.

But perhaps most important was simply keeping people apart so they couldn’t physically pass the virus to someone else. We call this social distancing — the limiting the physical contact we have with others. It includes encouraging people to work from home, closing schools and other institutions, and eliminating events that are associated with crowds. The most important component is the commitment of each and every citizen to keep one’s distance from others. That means not going to restaurants, health clubs, parties, malls — even church. These are the things that proved effective in China and South Korea. We have the chance to do them now, before the near-inevitable catastrophe occurs here.

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Two qualities in North Dakotans that have impressed me over the years are their sense of personal responsibility and their willingness to help out a neighbor in need. If each North Dakotan saw it as his or her personal and individual responsibility to really practice social distancing and the other common-sense measures, we could limit the coming rapid growth of cases that otherwise is almost certainly destined to occur, and thus help ourselves and our family, as well as our friends and neighbors. We all have to be involved in this effort and really mean it.

There is a clear choice for us right now: Are we prepared for some short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain? I’m confident that the answer is “yes”, so let’s get at it — now!

Joshua Wynne is interim president of the University of North Dakota. Wynne also is a physician who heads the UND Medical School.

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