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March 24.  Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky connected with constituents by phone on March 20 at 5 p.m., on the eve of a “stay-at-home” order issued by Governor J. B Pritzker for the entire state.

The Telephone Town Hall discussion on the coronavirus pandemic presented by Rep. Schakowsky included Dr. Terry Mason, Chief Operating Officer of Cook County Dept. of Public Health; Dr. Robert Murphy, Executive Director Northwestern University’s Institute for Global Health and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former U.S. FDA Commissioner.

Participants had the opportunity to ask the health experts a broad range of questions about the 2019 novel coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The call-in number for the presentation was publicized in phone messages to constituents and in the media in the days preceding the call.

In their comments and responses to questions, the health experts stressed the importance of following the advice of public health officials for hygiene and social-distancing.

“The more social distancing now, the shorter this whole thing is going to be…If we do nothing, over 50% of the population could become infected,” said Dr. Murphy.

Citing South Korea’s lesson in early action and swift containment via “massive screening and testing,” Dr. Murphy noted that the delay in screening in the U.S. “set us back at least one month” in the battle against the highly contagious coronavirus disease.

One fact came up throughout the conversation. People who test positive for COVID-19 today were infected in the days or weeks prior to experiencing symptoms.

“Lots of people were shedding the virus before they got sick,” said Dr. Gottlieb

 A smaller number of people who are infected do not feel sick at all, but can spread the disease to others.

 “In European studies, as many as 7% have no symptoms,” said Dr. Gottlieb.

An Evanston caller asked, “What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus?”

Noting that “symptoms are highly variable,” Dr. Gottlieb described COVID-19 as a lower airway disease with cold or flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, sore throat and cough, sometimes coupled with difficulty breathing.

Onset of symptoms is usually 5-6 days after infection, but could range from days to more than a week after infection.

About 80% of of COVID-19 cases will be manageable at home, with people getting better on their own. About 15% of patients will have more serious symptoms, with more shortness of breath and worsening cough. About 5%, particularly the elderly and others with chronic health conditions, develop a severe form of pneumonia. An estimated 1% succumb to the disease.

The Cook County Dept. of Public Health, where Dr. Mason is Chief Operating Officer, advises on its website that people who feel sick with mild symptoms should stay at home. Those with a fever, cough and shortness of breath should contact their medical provider.

Those who are at higher risk for complications from the disease, including people aged 65 and older and people of any age with underlying medical conditions, should contact their health care provider early, even if their symptoms are mild.

Hospital hotlines are another resource for those who have symptoms and are seeking guidance about COVID-19 testing. “The Northwestern Medicine hotline has received 1,600 calls a day,” said Dr. Murphy.

Calls to that hotline (312-47-COVID) are answered by a triage person who will discuss whether the person should be evaluated in person and considered for testing.

North Shore University Health System, which includes Evanston Hospital, also has a community health line (847-432-5849) with information about testing for COVID-19.

In response to callers with questions about access to testing, the experts were in agreement that availability of tests is getting greater and the number of test sites is increasing. Front line health care workers are being tested on site if they have symptoms.

Walgreens and Walmart are also dedicating temporary spaces such as parking lots outside of stores for testing, in collaboration with government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC recommends quarantine for 14 days for those who are reasonably believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease, because symptoms usually emerge 2-14 days after exposure.

All Illinois residents are under the state-wide stay-at-home directive that bars residents from socializing in-person with people outside their household. People can still enjoy open spaces as long as they maintain a social distance of six feet. Essential errands are allowed and vital occupations can continue to work as defined in the governor’s order.

A caller who identified herself as an ICU nurse from Des Plaines said she is concerned about the shortage of N95 masks to protect front line health care workers.

“State and local departments of public health are pushing for more shipments of N95 masks from the federal strategic national stockpile,” said Dr. Mason.

On March 18, Rep. Schakowsky led the Illinois Delegation of the U.S. House of Representatives in sending a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to request immediate assistance for the State of Illinois in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members specifically demanded adequate personal protective equipment from the federal strategic national stockpile (SNS), increased access to diagnostic tests for the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and rapid approval of a waiver to expand Medicaid access.

“Once we do more testing, there will be a surge in numbers,” Rep. Schakowsky told callers. As testing in the U.S. ramps up and the number of confirmed cases increase, she said it is important to put out messaging to “calm the worried well.”

Her focus is on “health, food and getting money to people.” She said she is working to ensure that emergency funds go to people rather than corporations in the form of direct payments.

Unemployment benefits may be available those to whose unemployment is attributable to COVID-19. To file for unemployment insurance, go to www.ides.illinois.gov

To apply for SNAP food benefits, go to www.abe.illinois.gov

Dr. Mason concluded the Telephone Town Hall, reciting the title of the song, “This Too Shall Pass.”

He reminded callers that each one can take steps to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19: wash hands often with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds; cover mouth and nose with a tissue or use the inside of the elbow when coughing or sneezing; throw used tissues in the trash; and maintain distance between with other people.

Callers who did not have their questions answered due to time limitations were invited to call Congresswoman’s office at 773-506-7100.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.