Novel COVID-19 measures; not all that novel?

While COVID-19 is a novel viral disease to the world, viral diseases and pandemics are not a new topic for governments, citizens, and scientists. The world, and the U.S. itself, have seen many life-threatening illnesses before. What can we learn from past pandemics for the fight against COVID-19? How has scientific evolution and thought strengthened us or potentially left us exposed to health crises?

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a Stay Home, Stay safe executive order on Mar. 23. This order has popularly been called a “quarantine” by many people. Though COVID-19 is novel, the idea and practices of quarantines and distancing go further back than this year.

Dr. Walter Wyman, a surgeon with the United States Marine-Hospital, published a 1890 work, Quarantine, which featured in Dr. Geo H. Rohes’s Text-book of Hygiene, of the same year. In Quarantine, Dr. Wyman expresses the importance of quarantines and when they are to be used. His definition of quarantine is, “the adoption of restrictive measures to prevent the introduction of diseases from one country or locality to another.” Incoming vessels were often to undergo a forty-day quarantine, once docked, to ensure that sailors and crew would not pass any possibly obtained diseases onto the towns and cities they were visiting for business or pleasure. Vessel quarantines date back to the city of Venice as early as 1403. Once the quarantine method was found to be effective in the maritime world, it was logical to apply it to land-based diseases and patients.

Dr. Wyman exemplified the use of quarantines with it’s application against the Cholera epidemic in Philadelphia. The excerpt Dr. Wyman took from the October 15, 1887 edition of Medical news goes into some detail about proper sanitation methods and separating the sick from the healthy during the epidemic. The first noted step is, “speedy recognition and isolation of the sick; their proper treatment; absolute and rapid destruction of the infectious agent of the disease, and anything it may be embedded in.” Quarantining of the sick is common logic, and the quarantining of those potentially sick was the goal of maritime quarantines. In summary, the Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order isn’t new, and has been implemented before to great effect, and the sooner enacted, the better.

The current Stay Home, Stay Safe order is rather lax compared to the “Inland Quarantine” Dr. Wyman wrote about. For early inland quarantines, Dr. Wyman mentions a “Sanitary Cordon, — this consists of a line of guards, military or civil, thrown around a district or locality, either to protect the same from the surrounding country when infected, or to protect the surrounding country from the infected district or locality.” Governor Whitmer’s enacting of the National Guard was to improve supply logistics, and not to fence us in. The sanitary cordon is credited with being the highly protective measure that helped to extinguish the Yellow Fever epidemic in Pensacola, Florida, in 1882. Though made to sound tyrannical by opponents of the executive order it is much more lax, and if properly followed, can save lives.

Moving forward to 1988, social researcher and scientist Joshua Lederberg published Pandemic as a Natural Evolutionary Phenomenon, which argues that the advancement of science from Dr. Wyman’s time up to present has “obscured the human species’ continued vulnerability to large-scale infections.” Lederberg’s thesis may seem arrogant and perhaps outdated, but his views remain prevalent in people’s willingness to go against tried and true quarantine measures for the sake of playing basketball or going to face-to-face religious services, just as two examples. While humans adapt and evolve, so do, Lederberg argues, viruses and bacterias. Coughing into sleeves, covering our mouths when we cough, washing our hands, and staying home when sick are just as necessary now as it was, and ignored, during previous epidemics. 

Lederberg points out that one of our most powerful defenses against life-threatening diseases are vaccines. Unfortunately, we don’t have an available COVID-19 vaccine, and there seems to be a rising in homeopathic and essential oil treatments and a falling in childhood vaccinations, and people who simply “don’t trust doctors,” or can’t afford proper medical coverage.

Lederberg critiqued Charles Darwin, the man behind the Theory of Evolution, saying, “He never quite rectified that man has a privileged place in nature.” While human intelligence and technology places us higher up the chain than animals, Darwin fails to look at the micro-beings such as bacteria and viruses as our real competitors. 

Anyone in the medical field can tell you that medicine must continue to advance as quickly as it can if we are to keep our heads above microorganism filled water. We lose our advantages when we ignore our medical and scientific breakthroughs, including but not limited to simple sanitizers, washing hands, not shaking the hands of everyone we see, staying home when we’re sick, and the basic warnings the CDC and health departments have been giving us with since COVID-19 surfaced, and some of us continue to ignore or brush aside because it’s inconvenient. 

Yellow Fever, plagues, cholera and more, are best caught in large, confined groups, and are best fought with highly diligent sanitation means and distancing. We should be learning from historic epidemics, scientists and doctors that know how best to combat this pandemic. Stay clean, stay home, stay safe. After the pandemic is over, keep the clean habits you have, or should have, develop during this time. Use sick days. Fight for sick days. We have a war to win against COVID-19, and we can’t win it if we have rebels, and even traitors, to the cause of defeating COVID-19. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, so please do your part in making it better as soon as possible.


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