Smile Politely

Ask Politely: The COVID-19 editon

Remember, way back in November when we announced we were starting an advice column? Well, it’s finally here. We’re eager to answer your questions, so do send them to us.

Disclaimer: We are neither experts nor robots, so if you need immediate medical assistance, please hang up and dial 9-1-1; if you need an immediate response to a question, call your mom.


How worried should we really be about the spread of COVID-19 in C-U? 

Ah yes, reader, we knew this would come up sooner or later. Here at Smile Politely we’ve been cautious about touching this subject (we’re supposed to be cautious about touching anything nowadays, right?), but it seems like it’s time to address it. As coronavirus, known scientifically as COVID-19, remains a fixture of the news cycle, and as new cases are identified each day, including in Illinois, we need to consider the possibility of it reaching Champaign-Urbana. 

Rule number one of addressing COVID-19: Don’t be racist. There are a large number of students and families in Champaign-Urbana from Asian countries. Unfortunately, because our country is generally trash when it comes to not being racist, there have been increases in racist comments and acts of violence against Asian and Asian-American people. Just this weekend, a sitting Congressman referred to the virus as Wuhan virus, and another called it China virus, which is not only erroneous, but it’s also obviously xenophobic. Check yourself before you make racist assumptions. The podcast Code Switch just released a fantastic episode about this topic; give it a listen. 

With that out of the way, let’s focus on prevention and the level of concern in C-U. Since neither of us are epidemiologists or health experts, we thought it best to reach out to someone who is. We are very fortunate to have the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) and leadership of its director Julie Pryde, who was incredibly generous in addressing (y)our concerns. And because we are an inquisitive pair, and we had the ear of someone who knows what’s up, one initial question led to several more. Our interview with Pryde is below, but in case you’re in a hurry or are too lazy to read, here’s the TL;DR: 

  • Don’t be racist!

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds, but not with vodka.

  • If you’re sick, stay home.

  • Stock up on the things you’d need for 14 days, but you don’t need that face mask unless you are a healthcare worker or have an underlying respiratory illness.

  • Yes, be concerned, but don’t lose your shit. Just get organized.

Smile Politely: What, exactly, is COVID-19? 

Julie Pryde: COVID-19 is the name of a brand new disease caused by a novel (newly discovered) coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. There are four coronaviruses that cause the “common cold”. There is one that causes SARS, and one that causes MERS. This newly discovered virus has only been known to science for a couple of months. There is still much that is not known about it.

SP: What are the symptoms and effects? 

Pryde: Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from asymptomatic to dry cough, fever (although not in all), and shortness of breath. Currently it is estimated that 80% of those who become infected will have a mild case [and] that they will recover from [it] without medical intervention. Roughly 20% will need medical care, and 10% of those will need critical care services.

SP: Who seems to be at greatest risk for serious complications and death from COVID-19?

Pryde: Seniors and those with serious underlying health conditions need to start discussing COVID-19 right now. The CDC is recommending that these individuals avoid cruise ships, and seriously consider reducing commercial travel. They also need to determine ways to stay away from public gatherings and crowds.

SP: Can someone be asymptomatic, or a “carrier” of the virus?

Pryde: There have been reports that persons can spread this while asymptomatic. It is believed that those who are symptomatic are most contagious, however.

SP: What’s the current status of the virus in Illinois? 

Pryde: As of March 10th, The Illinois Department of Public Health reported a cumulative total of persons under investigation (PUI) of 263. There were 4 positive cases with 37 tests pending. These numbers change daily. You can view the data here. It is important to remember that there have been very few tests conducted in the United States. We are far behind the testing being done in other countries. As testing increases, it is likely more cases will be discovered.

SP: How are CUPHD and local hospitals preparing?  

Pryde: In Champaign County, CUPHD, all healthcare providers, and the University of Illinois, city and county governments work together all year long, and have been preparing together for a pandemic since 2003. CUPHD and our local partners have practice responding to infectious disease outbreaks. We have practiced together through tabletop exercises and mass vaccination drills. We have worked together on real life community outbreaks such as measles, mumps, and pertussis. We have also worked closely together during the 2009 H1N1 Influenza Pandemic. We are all in regular communication, and we know what we need to do.

SP: Who should really be wearing face masks?  

Pryde: Persons with respiratory illness should wear surgical masks if they are going into a healthcare facility for care. They should remain home if they are sick. This is true for influenza or COVID-19. Sick people spread germs. Stay home until you are better if at all possible. Surgical masks do not prevent people from catching viruses. They are not intended for that purpose. The only ones who should be wearing N-95 respirator masks are those working directly with ill patients. This includes persons in hospitals, clinics, long term care facilities, and those who assist with transport, assessment care, or isolation and quarantine.

SP: What are some practical things we can do to minimize our risk of infection? 

Pryde: Stay home when you are sick. Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds (the time it takes you to sing the ABC song). [Or these pop songs.] Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Throw that tissue away and wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. FYI: Vodka only has 40% alcohol…so stop sharing that meme on social media. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth unless your hands have just been washed.

SP: The fear surrounding this virus feels more intense than previous pandemics (SARS or H1N1, for instance). Why this virus, and why now? 

Pryde: SARS was very scary at first as it was spreading unchecked. It did not appear to spread as easily. Viruses that “spillover” from animals to humans are always scary, as humans have no immunity. 

There is still much that is unknown about this virus. We are not doing anywhere near enough testing in the US to get a picture of where the virus is.

The concern is not just about the case fatality rate. That is concerning enough, especially for seniors and those with serious underlying health conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, etc., and those with compromised immune systems either from age, drugs, or disease.

There is also a very real concern that healthcare systems can be overwhelmed. Heart attacks, strokes, emergency surgeries, cancer, dialysis, accidents and mass casualty events do not care that we are in a pandemic. They will continue to happen. Our community needs to ensure that we do everything possible to slow the spread of COVID-19. A huge number of cases requiring hospitalization, all at once, puts pressure on hospital systems.

SP: On a scale of more frequent hand washing to hoarding canned goods and hand sanitizer, how concerned should we be? 

Pryde: There are currently no cases in Champaign County, and no sustained community spread in the United States. This is expected to change as the virus continues to quickly spread around the world. To prepare for this possibility we need everyone with the ability to prepare to do so. Our overriding goal in our community will be to keep the healthcare system, and especially the hospitals, from becoming overwhelmed during local spread.  

There are some steps you can take now:

Prepare to stay in your homes for at least two weeks. This means that you will need to have enough food, prescriptions, water, over-the-counter medicine and any other items that are necessary (toilet paper, hygiene supplies, pet food, special medical supplies like catheters or oxygen). This is important in case you become ill. We do not want you to have to go out of your home when you are sick, even for food or medicine, as this could potentially expose others. Additionally, Public Health could ask people to remain in their homes to help limit community spread.

  1. Get a flu shot and if you are eligible, and a pneumonia shot. Make sure all of your vaccinations are up-to-date. 

  2. Help prepare others. Share information with your friends, family, and neighbors. If you know of someone who may have trouble preparing, please assist them. 

  3. Please follow the guidelines provided by Public Health. When there is community spread, there will be information provided daily through the media, our social media pages, and our website.

  4. Please help us to spread facts, not fear. If you have questions, please send them to us at [email protected].


Have questions you need answered? Email us at [email protected]

Jessica Hammie and Julie McClure contributed to this article.

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