I went to work sick today. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I thought of all the patients I was potentially inconveniencing if I stayed home, and I figured since I didn’t have a fever, it was the right thing to do. Sacrifice, and go to work even when I didn’t feel one hundred percent myself. I thought I was being altruistic.

In retrospect, it was probably one of the most selfish things I have done.

I see patients, some of them quite elderly, and they were coming to see me because they were sick. Of course, I wanted to be there to help them, and I thought I knew how to keep my germs to myself and not make them worse.

But even as a seasoned physician, I should have taken my own advice and stayed home. Someone else could have seen my patients, and no one would have been exposed to my germs.

With the appearance of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, the importance of self-isolation has never been greater. All it takes is one sick person who doesn’t know they are infected to go out in public and start coughing without covering their mouths.

As with many infections, the riskiest time for spreading the virus is before someone feels bad enough to have to stay home. That’s when people push themselves, do more than they should, and inadvertently expose other people to infections that they might spread to others.

State Microbiologist Mark Nagata gives a demonstration of extracting Nucleic acid at the Department of Health, Public Health and Environmental Laboratories located at Waimano Home Road.
If you think you’re being heroic going to work sick, think again. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

For the residents of Kirkland’s Life Care facility in Washington State, exposure has been deadly for 11 residents thus far. The  Mardi Gras party that took place a few days before the first patient was diagnosed provided the perfect opportunity for the virus to spread. A group of elderly people in a small confined space with people coming in from outside to join the celebration. No one could have predicted the result. It certainly wasn’t intentional.

Recently 19 crew members on the cruise ship off of California tested positive. These are the people least likely to stay to themselves, as they need to provide service to passengers. Thus, more spread. It is not a surprise that over 100,000 people have been affected worldwide. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s almost impossible to prevent the spread from people who might not even know they are sick.

What can we learn from this situation?

First and foremost, stay home from work when sick. But before that happens, it’s all about taking the time to wash hands for at least 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer regularly, sanitizing the keyboard of any shared computer or phones, and being careful not to touch the face during the day.

For those who are sick with a fever, consider alternative modes of consulting with a doctor, including telephone or electronic visits. Avoid coming into contact with others, especially the elderly. Hospitals have posted signs about having temperatures checked before coming inside. Everyone should do that at home before even getting in the car and coming to a medical facility.

Wearing masks is for the sick. Healthy people don’t have to hoard masks and wear them everywhere. If there is a shortage and sick people can’t get masks, then the very folks who are coughing viruses and bacteria all around will not be able to protect anyone else.

Be responsible about travel. Far too many times, patients tell me they went somewhere while they were sick because they didn’t want to pay a change fee for their flights. That exposes everyone else on the plane to the infection and doesn’t help the sick person to get better any sooner. In fact, it probably delays their recovery.

The fallacy of ‘not in my backyard’ is that it won’t happen here. But it already has, and things will probably get worse before they get better. With the globalization of travel these days, it is not surprising that countries around the world are all struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus. By the time this article is published, more patients will be identified, and some will die from COVID-19. It’s too late to contain the virus.

 I’ll never know if someone got sick from exposure to me, their doctor, who has taken an oath to do no harm!

It’s also flu season, so people with similar symptoms might have a different illness, one that is statistically more likely, can also lead to death, but is considered less virulent than COVID-19.

No matter the situation, for those who are sick, the best approach is to take responsibility and stay home to avoid spreading the illness to others who might just be traveling to another state, or visiting a loved one in a nursing home or working in a hospital. These are high-risk situations that can be avoided if we all work together to protect ourselves.

Each of us has a responsibility not to be selfish, and if we are sick, stay home no matter how important we think we are to the workplace.  I’ll never know if someone got sick from exposure to me, their doctor, who has taken an oath to do no harm! But I will not show up at work or other public events if I’m sick, ever again. That’s a promise!

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