Kemmeter column: Battle against COVID-19 may depend on quarantine
By Gene Kemmeter
The coronavirus (COVID-19) is rapidly raising concerns throughout the world and now the United States as reports of new cases expand into more areas in a world that has become more entwined.
COVID-19 was first detected in late December in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, and is causing an outbreak of respiratory disease around the world. The World Health Organization says common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
Testing kits are in production, but there is no known cure and development of a vaccine could be more than 12 months in the future. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges people to protect themselves from getting sick by washing their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time; avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
The CDC also urges people to stay home while they are sick, avoid close contact with others, cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and clean and disinfect objects and surfaces.
Governments have ordered some travel restrictions, some communities and organizations have already canceled future events and professional sports and others are considering holding events without crowds. China and Italy have already resorted to quarantines in certain areas of their countries where the spread of the disease has been rapid.
Why such drastic steps? Because COVID is transmitted from human to human, large gatherings make the spread of the disease that much easier. Putting a quarantine in place may help reduce the spread, but lax enforcement could mean the disease would continue to prosper.
Schools that have periodically been impacted by absenteeism because of the common flu are considering closing as children stay at home to do schoolwork via the computer. Some businesses are already looking at the possibility of having their employees work from their home in the event of widespread quarantines. The impact of that option could put some firms out of business and many others would suffer potential closures.
Stevens Point and much of the country have already gone through quarantines. Just over 100 years ago, the deadliest influenza or flu in the world’s history is estimated to have infected 500 million victims (about one-third of the world’s population) and killed between 20 million and 50 million people, including some 675,000 in the U.S.
The situation in Stevens Point had reached epidemic proportions by Friday, Oct. 11, 1918, when the Stevens Point Board of Health prohibited all public assemblies in the city until further notice as the best way to fight the Spanish influenza. (The Spanish were the first to warn about the flu, as other countries were involved in World War I and didn’t want to alert their enemies to the situation.)
That meant closing all schools, including the State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point). The decree also covered the closing of theaters, pool halls, lodges, dance halls, churches, Sunday schools, church suppers, rummage sales, community singing, athletic games, banquets and social affairs.
All soda fountains were temporarily closed; and all stores, shops, saloons and other business places closed from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. People were encouraged to shop in the morning so stores wouldn’t be congested in the afternoon; peddlers were prohibited from selling meat on the Public Square; and children were instructed to stay in their own yards and avoid contact with other children. Athletic contests were played without spectators.
An impromptu celebration and parade on Nov. 11, 1918, to celebrate the end of WWI, drew hundreds out of their home and hastened the spread of the influenza. A temporary hospital was set up in Lincoln School in December to treat victims, and the illness situation began to regress, with schools reopening and other restrictions in the city slowly lifted.
Let us hope that modern technology can find a vaccine and a cure soon to help in the future. Quarantines were an effective method to quell the spread of the Spanish influenza, but today’s world depends on a more global economy and more interaction. Much of the food we eat and products we depend upon are shipped to us from around the world. But the key to beating COVID-19 right now is stopping its spread.