By Connie Leinbach
People should not think that Ocracoke is “safe” from the coronavirus.
Dr. Erin Baker, physician at the Ocracoke Health Center, said in an interview Tuesday that, just as the U.S. Surgeon General says, we should all act like we have it and adhere to the precautions being reiterated daily.
Baker said that all the publicity about this pandemic is not overly dramatizing a real threat.
“This (coronavirus) is unlike anything we’ve dealt with,” she said about the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world and about which the medical community is learning about on the fly. “It’s highly contagious, and there’s a lot we just don’t know about it. We don’t know precisely how long it lives in the air or on surfaces. We don’t know what will happen when the weather becomes really hot.”
The CDC has reported that as many as 25% of people infected with COVID-19 may not show symptoms and can therefore spread it.
Moreover, this new disease is more deadly than influenza.
“It’s killing a lot of people and killing them fast,” Baker said.
She said the state’s Department of Health and Human Services website has good information and is updated frequently.
As of this morning, it reported 1,584 cases, 10 deaths and 204 currently hospitalized. The number of tests performed for the virus is 26,243. More than 75 of the state’s 100 counties have confirmed cases. Mecklenburg County has the most with 444. Neither Hyde nor Dare counties are listed, though Hyde reported one and Dare two, but the individuals did not provide county addresses, so they were included in other counties
For the Ocracoke Health Center, proximity to patients has taken a drastic turn by using telephone calls and telemedicine.
In-person visits inside the center are done on a case-by-case basis and after a phone discussion. This is to minimize exposure to her staff and others.
Baker did say that protocols for this virus change every week. Now, the protocol is that those showing symptoms must self-isolate for seven days, not 14 days.
“I have the ability to test (for COVID-19), but the criteria keeps changing,” she said.
Once community spread was established in North Carolina, small primary care centers like Ocracoke’s are not supposed to test for the virus, she said. “Because if you have a sick person coming out to get tested, they could infect others,” she said.
Unlike an in-office test for the flu, which yields results in 15 minutes, the lag time for testing for COVID-19 is seven to eight days.
However, those who feel sick are encouraged to call the center and Baker will talk to them.
She stressed what other medical professionals are saying: that the best thing everyone can do is practice “physical distancing,” a new term that has replaced “social distancing” in the medical world, because “we don’t want you not to be social.”
“Social” these days is taking the form of Zoom and Skype, two online video conferences services, and telephone conference calls.
She acknowledged the psychological toll this pandemic is taking.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and with good reason,” she said. “There’s a lot of fear of getting sick and financial concerns and emotional concerns. Telling people to lock down is a scary prospect.”
Baker urged those on the island to take the physical distancing rules seriously as, absent a vaccine, this is the best way to slow this virus down, which is fast infecting North Carolina, and for which American death models are predicting anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 with social distancing followed to more than 1 million if social distancing measures are only piecemeal nationwide. These estimates are changing regularly as more tests results are reported and more is learned about the virus’s transmission.
“This is not a time to mingle and be close,” she said about physical distancing. “This is to protect people.”
Baker noted that public health measures may seem to be invisible.
“You don’t really see the good it does,” she said about public health efforts. “If we do this right, it will look like it was all for nothing.”
Secondarily, Ocracoke is experiencing what some other island communities and rural places are experiencing—an influx of people from elsewhere thinking they can hunker down.
While Baker couldn’t address the influx of off-islanders, Ocracoke’s County Commissioner Tom Pahl noted that Ocracoke is different because it is responding to two crises at the same time—recovery from Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 6 and now this global pandemic.
As of Monday (March 30), the Hyde County commissioners further restricted access to off-island property owners by requiring those who want to come here to repair their hurricane-damaged homes to obtain a building permit. Construction workers also have to obtain building permits.
“We’re trying to prevent people from coming to the island, because they have a couple of screens to repair and what they really are trying to do is come to the island and find a place to hold up till this virus threat passes or abates,” he said today on an interview on WOVV 90.1 FM. “It’s a very, very difficult situation for everyone.”
Dare County restricted all visitors and non-resident property owners, and placed checkpoints at Outer Banks bridges.
Overriding the Hyde and Dare county travel restrictions is the statewide Stay at Home order, also instituted on Monday, Pahl said.
About the commissioners’ further access restrictions, Pahl made the following post March 30 on Facebook:
“We are truly grateful for the incredible generosity of non-resident property owners who made their undamaged properties available to displaced residents following Hurricane Dorian. The island has been clawing its way back to something like normalcy since September 6 and the generosity of islanders, off-islanders and state and federal partners has been incredibly important to us.
“Now along comes the pandemic. Our medical response capacity is very limited. We have one doctor and two ambulances with two EMS crews (one on and one resting). That’s it. We are making decisions in uncharted water, consulting with the best professional advisers we can find, and of course, following guidance from the Governor’s task force.
“Right now, we are headed for the implementation of a state-wide stay at home order, starting today at 5 p.m. Please comply with the governor’s order. If that and our travel restrictions combine to prevent modest repairs and preparations of rental cottages from going forward immediately, one would hope that turns out to be our most urgent problem.
“All together, we are responding with the tools and the knowledge we have available, which, agreed, is blunt at best.
“We regret any hard feelings our decisions may cause, and we expect there will be much of that to contend with in the aftermath.”