We’ve been here before. We just don’t remember it.

To slow the spread of COVID-19, Governor Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health issued a stay at home order last week directing Minnesotans to limit movement outside of the home beyond essential needs. Based on our experience with other infectious disease epidemics like measles and polio, we need all Minnesotans to take this order seriously.

There are a lot of reasons we aren’t fully realizing the sobering scope of this danger. First of all, as Americans we tend to believe our healthcare systems have the very best care and the very best technology. We believe we can be cured, and we believe we save anybody from anything. But what many don’t realize is that unlike influenza, we don’t have a treatment for COVID-19. We can only provide supportive care for sufferers. Our physicians, nurses and other staff are trying to help each critically ill patient clear their body of infection by using supportive care. This includes deploying respirators and ventilators to help people breathe, for example. If you think about it, it’s the same problem that we have with measles. Currently there is no treatment for measles, and a lot of very deadly complications like encephalitis, a brain infection, can occur with that disease.

In addition, infectious diseases are simply not top of mind in our country. We are very well educated on chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and of course cancer. For Americans, infectious diseases like Ebola occur “somewhere else” where healthcare is not nearly as advanced. In fact, many of us think we’re immune (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the effects of infectious disease because our healthcare is so sophisticated.

The small town of Protection, Kansas became the first in the nation to be fully-immunized against polio. (Photo via March of Dimes Foundation)

The last time we were majorly impacted in this country by an infectious disease was the polio epidemic in the  1940s and 1950s. Few of us are old enough to remember the fear surrounding that time.  The only memory I have of polio is when I was about five,  standing in line to receive my polio vaccine in a sugar cube.  However, social distancing was also being used to fight the disease.  Swimming pools, churches, schools, and other public areas were all closed.

We’ve been here before. We just don’t remember it.

Of the people who get COVID-19 (which will surely be most of us) 5% will need an ICU bed. Just doing the math tells us that the number of people who need ICU beds will outpace the number of beds we have.  By staying home and slowing the spread we’ll be giving healthcare providers  precious time to ramp up and be ready. We’ll have more time to configure our hospitals so there are more beds, more supportive technology like respirators, and of course more tests. This, in turn, gives you, your family, and your neighbors a better chance of having the care they need when they need it.

Governor Walz has done an excellent job of presenting the data to show how staying at home and practicing social distancing will reduce the rate of transmission. This is really what the Stay Home Minnesota order is about. Most, if not all of us, will get the virus. What we need to do is make sure we can provide care for those who get seriously ill from it, so we can give people a better chance at fighting off the deadly complications of COVID-19.

Dr. Claire Neely

Claire Neely, MD is the CEO and President of ICSI and a Minnesota healthcare leader for more than 30 years. Dr. Neely has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics since 1995 and a board-certified Pediatrician since 1985.