CORONAVIRUS: Lancashire public health boss says we can win the war - but we all need to do "our duty"

The medic in charge of public health in Lancashire has issued a rallying cry to the county as it prepares to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, telling residents: “Together we can”.

Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi said it was “our duty” to take the necessary steps to protect the most vulnerable in society – including our own elderly relatives.

Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi:  "We are in this for the long haul.

Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi: "We are in this for the long haul.

But his message came with a stark warning – if the county and the country does not follow the strict guidance being given about the radical changes we must make to the way we live our lives, then there would not be a health system on the planet that could cope with the consequences.

In his role as Lancashire’s director of public health, Dr. Karunanithi appealed for residents to adhere to the social distancing and self-isolation measures announced by the government earlier this week.

“It can be frustrating and boring to remain indoors, but our elders gave over their lives and their careers to bringing us up and it is now our turn to protect the most vulnerable – who are none other than our parents and grandparents.

“We are a hardworking, innovative people and we have the humour in the county to keep us going. There are all sorts of examples of solidarity which I’m starting to see – real altruism – so I am hopeful that we will get through this, albeit that it will be a difficult few months ahead.

“[But] if we do not contain or stop the transmission of the virus through home isolation and social distancing, no health system in the world has got enough intensive care capacity to cope with an unmitigated pandemic,” warned Dr. Karunanithi, who has previously worked on eradicating polio and tackling swine flu.

On Monday, the government called on everybody to start practising social distancing techniques – avoiding gatherings and unnecessary travel, working from home when possible and shunning pubs, restaurants and theatres.

They said such measures – which include not having visitors to the home – should be followed “stringently” by anybody over the age of 70 or anybody at all with an underlying health condition.

According to Dr. Karunanithi, the guidance will have the desired effect if it is followed – and he told residents to expect more measures in the near future

“If we do social distancing really well, we’ll stop the transmission. It’s a balancing act [in] timing the severity of it.

“As we go into the next few days, we will start to see, in my opinion, more stringent social distancing come into effect. There is a balance to be had [about] bringing the whole of society to a halting stop – because it’s not just a health emergency, it’s an economic emergency.

“This is going to be a significant change in the way we live our lives for some time to come – we are in this for the long haul.”

Dr. Karunanithi stressed the need for continued scrupulous hygiene practices – washing our hands regularly and thoroughly for 20 seconds in soap and water and catching coughs and sneezes in tissues before binning them and washing our hands again. It is also recommended that people keep a distance of at least six feet from others.

However, he said that a key message that might not be getting through because of its necessary complexity was how we should socially isolate ourselves if we show symptoms of the coronavirus – specifically, a new persistent cough and/or high temperature. He said the measures were necessary to mitigate against the contagious effect of other people who are likely to have caught the virus, but never developed any symptoms and so will continue to move about as normal.

“Home isolation is for people who might possibly have the virus and are infectious.

“If you live on your own and have symptoms, then it’s seven days’ isolation. If you live in a household with other people and you have got symptoms, we’re asking the whole household to isolate for 14 days.

“If somebody has a symptom, the likelihood of them remaining infectious and at risk of passing it on to others [after seven days] is low. The reason for 14-day isolation [for whole households] is that, based on current knowledge, it could take that long for someone to catch the virus from another person who is infectious and become symptomatic [themselves].”

The 14-day isolation period should begin from the day on which the first person in a household experienced symptoms. Each individual who subsequently experiences symptoms must start the clock on their own personal seven-day isolation from when they first fall ill – irrespective of what day they are up to in the 14-day whole household isolation period.

Answering some of the criticism directed at the UK for moving away from testing all possible cases of coronavirus, Dr. Karunanithi said it was a “tricky” issue.

“We have got to balance that against one of the other key priorities – which is having the capacity in the NHS to manage people who have complicated illness, so testing will have to be prioritised for [them] in the first instance.

“Then if we do find people positive, the management of that space and isolation becomes easier. However, it is a fast-moving field – there are already talks about testing key NHS staff.

“There is also testing going on in the general public, but in a much more targeted way. If there is a care home that has got a resident with potential symptoms, we are prioritising testing in those settings.”

With difficult days likely to loom for Lancashire, Dr. Karunanithi said the best thing that residents could do was “keep themselves informed” via reputable sources such as the NHS and government websites and the local media.

But he held out a message of hope about the capacity of the county to respond to an emergency “on a scale that many of us will never have dealt with in our lifetimes or in peacetime”

“I’m trained in this and so are other colleagues in the NHS and the police – we’ve done so many exercises in the past.

“The working relationship we have got going between the public and voluntary sectors is now coming in very useful – so everybody is putting their hands on the deck to see this virus off.”