I’m a Microbiologist and a Mom. Here’s What You Should Know About Coronavirus.

By Jess Badger-Rotenberg

March 13, 2020

Help slow the spread of coronavirus in your community by staying home. Yes, that means no shopping.

If it feels like things have escalated significantly in the last 24-48 hours regarding the coronavirus outbreak, it’s not your imagination.

Like you, I’ve been following along with the U.S.’s response to coronavirus. There is so much conflicting information out there, and I want to make sure I’m making the best decisions possible to protect my family and community.

This stuff also interests me because of my past work as a biologist at the N.C. State Crime Lab and as a genetic researcher. Those jobs helped me learn how to determine fact from fiction—and it’s imperative that we have and share information that is backed by science.

The World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday. The best way to describe a pandemic to the general public is as an illness that requires a global response. Drastic measures taken in the U.S. in recent days include suspending the NBA season, cancelling the NCAA tournament, and closing Disneyland and Disney World. 

From a public health perspective, this is good news, but it feels scary for two reasons. First, changes happened very suddenly. Second, these changes are unprecedented. 

There’s still so much uncertainty around COVID-19. As a microbiologist mom, here’s my best attempt to answer some of the questions you may have.

How did it all happen so fast?

Coronavirus cases spread exponentially. Exponential growth is a concept that is hard for the average person to grasp. A columnist at the Washington Post explained it well:

“There’s an old brain teaser that goes like this: You have a pond of a certain size, and upon that pond, a single lilypad. This particular species of lily pad reproduces once a day, so that on day two, you have two lily pads. On day three, you have four, and so on. Now the teaser. ‘If it takes the lily pads 48 days to cover the pond completely, how long will it take for the pond to be covered halfway?’ The answer is 47 days. Moreover, at day 40, you’ll barely know the lily pads are there.”

Think of our country at about day 42 right now. By the middle of next week, we’ll be at day 47. When 48 hits, people will rightfully ask, “What on earth just happened?” 

The coronavirus train has already left the station. We can slow it down, but we can’t turn the train around. 

In short: This next week or two will continue to feel intense.

What should I do?

Help slow the spread of coronavirus. You can do that by staying home from everything that isn’t absolutely essential. I hate to be the bad guy, but that includes karate, gym, yoga, church, soccer, girls’ nights, movies, and travel. 

This will achieve two things: First, you’ll reduce your chance of getting coronavirus. Second, you’ll be taking personal responsibility for the health of your community. 

If you have a fever and feel fatigue or congestion, call your local health department or doctor. 

And, of course, continue to wash your hands.

So no extra shopping? 

That’s correct. Aside from critical medications, no amount of toilet paper or bottled water will protect you and your community more than staying home will at this point.

Why is it so important to stay home?

We cannot stop the spread of this virus completely, but slowing it down will allow our medical infrastructure to treat the influx of patients. Countries like Italy are a week or two ahead of the U.S. in numbers of cases. By studying what happens in those countries, officials can make better decisions here. Remember, this is a novel virus, and we do not yet know exactly how it behaves, though we are learning more each day.

In Italy, doctors are completely overwhelmed, and forced to make decisions about which sick patients get ventilators because there are not enough to treat everyone. By staying home, you are helping reduce the chance that the doctors and nurses you know will need to make such difficult moral choices.

But what about work?

Work from home if you can, but of course that’s not feasible for all of us, and losing a paycheck has serious consequences.

If we look at Italy again, they have closed everything except banks, pharmacies, grocery stores, and hospitals. The U.S. may also have to redefine what is truly essential, and the most vulnerable among us will bear the brunt of this impact. 

However, this is a great time to continue to pay the small businesses you hire for sports lessons or cleaning. Everyone needs to be aware of those around them, and we need to come together as a community.

How is the U.S. doing so far?

Here’s what we know: The U.S. is testing far fewer people than other countries due to a lack of test kits. Because the number of kits is insufficient, they are currently being saved for those most at risk, like those who have had contact with a COVID-19 patient or travelers from affected countries. In other words, very few people are eligible for testing, which means the number of cases in the U.S. is likely much higher than what has been confirmed by health officials. 

As of early Friday afternoon, the number of Americans sickened by coronavirus had exceeded 1,700, with 41 deaths. Based on epidemiological models, the number of cases here are almost certainly higher. 

It’s nearly impossible to know exactly what that number is, but I feel comfortable speculating that it’s at least 25 times higher, possibly even more. No one knows for sure, but it is more widespread than the reported cases indicate.

How bad might this get?

The actions we take today won’t be apparent for a few weeks. Think of it like adjusting the temperature of your shower. You know when you turn the hot water on a little more, you have to wait maybe 10 seconds to notice the difference? That’s similar to how public health works. Every action we take today will have an impact in about a week or so. No one can really tell us what to expect then. 

What we do know is that countries that have had similar infection rates have taken what feel like extreme measures, yet are still experiencing healthcare shortages. So it’s essential that we begin social distancing as soon as possible. It is the most important tool we have because the virus spreads so easily. This is especially true if every patient with a fever can’t immediately be tested for the virus.

How do I explain this to my kids in a non-scary way?

This Facebook user had a great analogy I used with my own kids, age 7 and 6.


I’m anxious and scared. Help!

Yes, I am too. Realistically, we are looking at being home for a while, so here are four ideas to help you cope. 

First, make a list of things that make you happy and help you relax: Netflix, calling a friend or family member, coloring, reading, yoga, music, sitting outside on the front porch. When you feel stressed, do one of those things. 

Second, take a few hours away from the internet every day. The information isn’t going anywhere, and it can wait. 

Third, create an “at-home bucket list” that might include learning how to make fried chicken, cleaning out the garage, or finishing that craft project from Christmas. Allow yourself to “catch up” on things you are usually too busy to do. 

Fourth, give yourself and others grace. There is plenty of room to be “good enough” right now. The kids can watch TV and your food choices don’t need to be perfect. Lower those standards a little to keep your mental health in check. 

I know I keep saying this but again: By staying home, we will allow those who most need help to receive it.


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