“While the coronavirus is the truck, COVID-19 is the Ford F-150,” Brittany Hopkins explained.
The Bradley County Health Department director offered a detailed insight into the local department’s role in the pandemic during a recent virtual meeting of Kiwanis of Cleveland.
She shared that she was from Tellico Plains and moved to Cleveland for school at Lee University, where she “fell in love” with public health and opted to make it her career. Now, as a Cleveland transplant, she’s helping to steer the community through the storm of COVID-19.
She said the most challenging aspect of keeping the community on course is the constant current of new information coming into the health department through the state Tennessee Department of Health, the CDC or the federal government.
She said decisions have been made using the information available at the time, but what they have discovered is that this virus, while new to the world, is like many respiratory infections in how it is spread.
“With most coronaviruses, the spread is through the droplets and this one is no exception. It triggers when this virus comes in contact with your nose, your mouth, your eyes, and the upper respiratory pathway,” she said. “When it comes into your body it triggers an immune response.”
That immune response, she said, can range from no symptoms to a dangerous infection.
“We hear a lot of people saying they’ve had a headache, stuffy nose and just overall they feel very funny,” she said. “That’s the body’s way of trying to find the infection.”
She said some people have described the onset headache as “excruciating,” and in the cases of a “very strong immune response,” they may never get the tell-tale fever.
When the immune system can’t tackle the infection, Hopkins said that’s when the door to serious illness is opened.
“That’s when we get into this issue with infections in the lungs or having fevers that won’t break easily, and that’s when you begin to present the danger,” she said. “When the fluid does enter your lungs, the body has this very strong immune response. It sends your body into all sorts of different issues.”
She said those individuals typically find themselves in the hospital or ICU because their immune systems are “completely overwhelmed.”
She added that is the likely reason older Tennesseans have the most trouble fighting the virus because their immune systems and bodies are “tired” or already taxed and working overtime.
Since learning of the virus in December, Hopkins said, “We still don’t know a lot about this virus.” She said the lack of knowledge is what has raised concerns among health experts locally and nationally regarding proper treatment and care.
“The reason we’re really trying to stay on top of COVID-19, as opposed to the idea of coronavirus that floats around our community on any given day, is because we usually have a lot of known treatments for those viruses. We already know what to do with those and we already know what to expect. This one we don’t know just yet.”
She said the highest priority is containment and mitigating the spread, adding that prevention is “all our responsibility.”
“Protecting people from the virus is your own individual responsibility, especially when there’s not a vaccine,” Hopkins said. “It spreads from person to person, so it becomes every person’s responsibility in protecting the person next to them.”
She said the best prevention includes practices “we’ve all heard many times now.”
She said touching infected surfaces and then touching one’s face, and even talking in close contact with people can cause droplets to land on individuals’ hands and spread the virus when that person touches their eyes, nose and mouth.
Mask-wearing and frequent handwashing are the best prevention methods, as “regular old soap” can wash the virus off and wearing a face mask can limit the disbursement of respiratory droplets.
“Assume that people can have it and that we need to stay six feet apart,” Hopkins said. “It’s not that we need to shut ourselves in our homes, but just staying distanced can really, really help.”
She added that cleaning items like doorknobs and the inside of one’s car are small ways residents can “go a little bit above and beyond.”
The Bradley County Health Department hosts drive-thru testing for COVID-19 from 9 a.m. to noon. For those feeling symptomatic, Hopkins recommended the CDC symptom checker and said, if possible, “calling your doctor is the best place to start.”
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