While public health officials from the Green River District Health Department say they understand how the limited operation and closure of businesses throughout the state have created a financial burden for some, they say it is a necessary disruption in everyday life to combat COVID-19.

GRDHD public health director Clay Horton and senior epidemiologist Jessica Austin met with McLean County emergency responders and elected officials Wednesday to discuss the significance of COVID-19 and provide information about the virus and why such drastic measures are being taken to contain the situation.

The goal with restaurant restrictions and the closure of some businesses, according to Horton, is to lessen the spike in the number of individuals becoming infected with the virus at once, so medical facilities and resources are not overwhelmed or exhausted.

According to Horton, 80% of infected persons will show mild symptoms to no symptoms. The other 20%, however, are predicted to be severe cases that will likely require hospitalization.

The intention with limited in-person interaction then, is to spread that 20% of infected individuals out over a longer period of time and slow the spread of the virus so that, while medical resources will be used, they will not be exhausted all at once.

“These community interventions are really designed to slow the spread and buy us time until there’s a vaccine available so that we can avoid that overwhelming of the healthcare system,” Horton said.

Horton said the economic hardship is not lost on him or anyone in the position of making these impactful decisions. In an average week, Horton said 2,000 people apply for unemployment in Kentucky. Following restrictions on restaurants, he said that number reached 10,000 in just one day.

“I think we’re hearing a lot of news out of Italy and the death rate seems to be a little bit more dramatic than what we initially heard in China, and that’s where I think we see our government taking such drastic measures because this is real,” Austin said.

While the overall mortality rate for the virus for all ages is estimated between 1-3%, Austin said, that rate is different for the at-risk population, typically the elderly. Austin said mortality rates reach between 12-15% when that group is separated from the overall infected population.

“The point is not to get everyone to panic. The point is to get everyone to take this seriously and know that this will work if we can get everybody to buy into the strategy … really, there should be a civic duty to do this and that’s what it’s going to take,” Horton said.

Horton said a large issue regarding public sentiment about the pandemic is the spreading of misinformation on social media that creates an atmosphere where the situation is not perceived to be a dire one.

“There have been epidemics and pandemics, but this one is extraordinary,” Horton said.

Other more recent pandemics, such as H1N1, he said, are not nearly as contagious and do not have as high a mortality rate as COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of toxic information in social media that causes this panic and our job, as public health, is to have an effective risk communication, that’s what I’m trying to do — communicate the risk and what actionable steps people can take to mitigate those and control that,” Horton said. “There is hope. I think that we’ll come through this. It will be fine, but as leaders, we just need to be sure that we’re carrying that message, that we’re quick to … address this notion that it’s overblown, that this is not needed, that it’s some kind of conspiracy. It really is bigger than that. It’s more important than that.”

Horton said it’s hard to put a timeframe on how long the more extreme restrictions will stay in place for Kentucky or other areas. He said he believes the outbreak could persist intermittently for some time.

“I think we’re going to be dealing with this for a while — maybe a year, a year and a half, but I don’t know that it’s always going to look like what it’s looking like right now,” he said. “We’ll just have to monitor what’s happening with the pandemic and they’ll make adjustments from there. …This is a time to trust the experts. We live in a time when everybody thinks they’re an expert … but you have to trust the experts in the situation and follow their guidelines.”

Christie Netherton, cnetherton@mcleannews.com, 270-691-7360

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