An Expert in Disaster Response Answers COVID-19 Questions

According to Sue Anne Bell, the coronavirus will be both a personal and communal challenge


The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 — or COVID-19, for short — is sweeping through communities around the globe, and even with round-the-clock news coverage, it seems to have been accompanied by a pandemic of uncertainty. We spoke with Sue Anne Bell, PhD, a nurse practitioner who serves on a disaster response team and is a researcher at the University of Michigan studying how disasters and public health emergencies affect the health of older adults, to address some questions about COVID-19 and learn how we in the U.S. and Michigan can stay healthy.

What should you do if you’re sick and you have to care for others?

The best things to practice, Bell says, are basic hand-washing, maintaining a 6-foot buffer, and minimizing contact as much as possible. “Try to get an alternative caregiver,” she says. Maybe that’s your partner or another close relative. (Ideally, someone healthy.) And take care of yourself as you would with any virus: Eat healthy, monitor your temperature, rest, minimize stress, and, of course, stay at home.

Are there any preventative measures we can take to increase our odds of having only a mild case of COVID-19 if we catch it?

Social distancing, thus avoiding contact with people who are potentially affected, is essential. “You can be a super healthy person, and take vitamins, and eat a healthy diet, and you can come into contact with someone with a very contagious virus — and you’re going to get it,” Bell says. But, she says, such basics as being well-rested and exercising regularly may help you weather the virus, too. Tempted to reach for beer? Reducing alcohol use, as well as tobacco products, can be beneficial. Be up-to-date on vaccinations, too, Bell says.

What’s the best-case scenario for how this will play out?

There is, of course, the “pie-in-the sky stuff,” Bell says, like that a vaccine — or even a cure — comes out, say, tomorrow, or that we learn that the virus is highly affected by temperature and as it warms up, there is a huge drop in cases. But more realistically? “Right now, the best-case scenario is for us as a country to come together and follow the advice of health authorities,” Bell says. That means staying at home and avoiding large groups. “It’s a very strange and uncomfortable new normal.”

How do you encourage people to manage their anxiety?

Unplug from screens and the news. “If you can take a break from social media and do some exercise, or read a book, or meditate for five minutes … that is a really healthy thing to do,” Bell says. It can also help keep you from misinformation. (That meme about your ability to take a deep breath in the morning as an indicator of COVID-19? Completely not true, she says.) She urges people to follow “trusted sources of information” — the CDC, WHO, and state and local public health authorities — and help dispel rumors.

Beyond washing hands and avoiding crowds, what is the most important piece of advice you can offer the public?

Simply be kind to each other — and to yourself, Bell says. “Part of being kind means you are trying to do the right thing, not just for yourself, but also for the health of the community,” she adds. Look for neighbors in need, or, if you can, consider donating, say, to help children who have lost access to free or reduced lunch programs because of school closures. Kindness in a situation like this isn’t just an altruistic ideal: There’s scientific backing. “There’s a lot of research that shows that in an emergency, how well a community comes together dictates how well they recover from disaster,” Bell says. So keep calm, work together — and be kind.