A Savannah Doctor's Opinion on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

In the midst of a frightening and unsure time, we turn towards those who are experts and leaders. That’s certainly true of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re all looking to the people who will help us heal, learn, and move forward.

One such example in the Savannah area is SouthCoast Health’s Dr. Benjamin L. Watson. A board-certified internal medicine physician and also a state senator, Dr. Watson is a critical member of Governor Kemp’s COVID-19 taskforce. Initiated back when the virus first reached the United States, this group oversees COVID-19 related official state communications, emergency response strategy development, and, eventually, helping the state of Georgia get back to life as it once was.

Among the committee members are representatives from Georgia’s emergency management team, the Atlanta airport, hospital systems, infectious disease doctors, and health departments across the state. Dr. Watson was nominated and eagerly joined to do what he could for Georgians in this time of crisis.

“Right now, the work we’re doing is focusing on relieving the anxiety around this virus,” Dr. Watson said. “It’s a once in a lifetime event we all want to learn from, so communication and coordination of effort are extremely important right now. This type of work will benefit all of us.”

We recently sat down with Dr. Watson to get his unique perspective on the COVID-19 situation.

How Did COVID-19 Start?

As many people know, coronavirus first originated in China. The virus mutated into what it is today when diseased bats in a certain area in China bit and fed on squirrel-like animals, who in turn got infected. Those animals were then caught and brought to a live market to be sold to humans. COVID-19 quickly spread from person to person from there.

What are the Symptoms of Coronavirus?

COVID-19 is not much different from any other type of flu or cold regarding the physical symptoms. Individuals with the virus will most commonly experience a dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath. Despite common belief, congestion and diarrhea are not common symptoms but do present as primary symptoms in about 10-20% of cases.

What Can We Do to Stay Safe in These Times?

Above all, good hygiene is vital. Wash your hands, cough or sneeze into your elbow, clean your bathroom and living areas, and avoid touching your face. The best way to stay safe is to destroy the virus’s chance of spreading, which means killing it before it transfers to your body.

Another important element? Stay educated on the latest developments. Learn the symptoms of the virus, see how your state and county are stopping the spread, and watch how other countries respond. Doing so will help you make informed decisions about your behavior during this time.

For example, here in the United States “social distancing” is a key factor in minimizing the impact to our healthcare system and broader populations. Similarly, being conscious about not over-purchasing products that everyone needs access to (hand sanitizer, toilet paper, etc.).

Why is Self-Quarantine So Important?

Self-quarantine is vital because you’re removing the source of the virus from the population. In the same way you wouldn’t go to work with a stomach virus or a cold, you wouldn’t want to be around other people if you’re carrying COVID-19.  It’s even more important in this case because this virus is highly contagious. Sometimes the first symptoms usually take three to six days to start but can take up to 12 days to develop.

Think about all the people who have compromised immune systems from medical diseases such as leukemia or asthma. Even if you feel healthy and fine, you still might have the virus. If you so much as cough or touch something in the same area as others, you spread the disease. If you gave coronavirus to one of those compromised people, it could be catastrophic for them. It’s as simple as being empathic and doing things for the greater good.

How is This Virus Different from Others?

Though it is similar to other historical outbreaks like SARS, this is a specific new strand of a mutated RNA. For those who aren’t familiar, RNA is a critical part of the genetic makeup of everything living. This particular strand of RNA in COVID-19 started when the bats bit the squirrels, from there spreading to humans.

Similarly, coronavirus is very contagious and has an unusually high mortality rate. While SARS had about a two percent mortality rate, in some populations COVID-19 has a 15% mortality rate. These two vital elements of the disease we’re still learning about, which is what makes testing and treating so tricky.

What Makes the Coronavirus a Pandemic?

An epidemic is defined as a widespread sickness that occurs in only one smaller, localized area. A pandemic is defined as an infectious disease that affects the world. In this sense, the root “pan” means “all.”

How Do We Prevent This from Happening Again?

It is my sincere hope and belief that we will learn from this experience and be better equipped to deal with the next pandemic. Governments are changing their policies when it comes to wide-spread illness, doctors are learning more about this virus and how others like it spread so easily, and the human population is taking good hygiene practices more seriously. These are all steps in the right direction.

In particular, I hope that more emphasis and funding is put into the study of animals and how their diseases transfer to humans. Doing so can help us catch major diseases before they develop into a pandemic.

What is Your Advice for Those Worried About the Virus Right Now?

Once you’ve taken all the basic precautions mentioned, stay positive and recognize you’ve done all you can as a general member of the public. The interactions between the Georgia Department of Public Health, all the doctors in the state, the Center for Disease Control, and our government have really put everything into perspective.

People are working hard with experts to ensure we stop the damage the virus is creating as soon as possible. It’s interesting to think about statistics in a time like this. A third of people think we’re not doing enough to prevent this virus from spreading. A third think we are doing enough, and another third think we’re doing too much.

From where I’m sitting, lots of positive change is happening and I think it’s important that people know about that. For example, screenings are becoming more accessible with every passing day. In fact, the state of Georgia will see an increase of thousands of tests available soon. In the same vein, primary care physicians are embracing changes to their practices and routines to better heal people. The health department as we know it is shifting and changing to better accommodate this climate. All this massive change and quick work is inspiring.

But above all, I recommend people continue to self-quarantine if they are able. Stay at home, practice good hygiene, and stop the spread of the disease as much as possible.

 

What Are SouthCoast Health and Dr. Watson Doing to Help?

Myself, my colleagues, and the SouthCoast Health administration is doing its very best to be on the front lines of fighting this pandemic in the Low Country and Coastal Empire region.

  • All patients and staff are screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before being allowed into their offices. Anyone with symptoms will not be allowed inside and will be asked to return to their vehicles for further instruction.
     
  •  SouthCoast physicians now have the capability to send their patients to a mobile sample collection site located at our office on Eisenhower Drive in Savannah. Please note that samples are sent to an outside referring lab for testing and the results should be available in 3-4 days.
     
  • We are heeding the request to limit the number of people in waiting rooms by having patients follow new best practices, such as spacing out chairs in the waiting room and asking people to not bring guests for their appointments.
     
  • SouthCoast Health is pleased to have the technology to implement virtual visits. Virtual visits or “telehealth” offers patients the opportunity to have a doctor visit without coming into the office. Some of our physicians already offer this opportunity and are diligently adding to the roster daily. If you have a smartphone, tablet or computer with an internet connection, your doctor’s appointment may be approved for a virtual visit.

 

In times of uncertainty and fear, it can be hard to cut through the clutter and truly know what’s best for you or your family. The main advice I can give is to practice good hygiene and social distancing, stay on top of advice from organizations like the CDC, and remain hopeful. We will get through this, if we learn from others and stop the spread of disease as much as possible.

 

If you have symptoms of cough, fever, or shortness of breath AND think you may have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 or traveled to an area with cases of the virus, call your primary care physician’s office for more instructions.

Dr. Benjamin L. Watson is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. He earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia and completed his residency at the Memorial Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia. Dr. Watson specializes in internal medicine and is an active member of several medical societies such as the Georgia Medical Society and the Medical Association of Georgia.