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Coronavirus In Our City: New York Must Mobilize Resources and Avoid Scapegoating


chen coro

Coronavirus briefing by Mayor de Blasio & others (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


With the first confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus, COVID-19, in New York City, our communities are on high alert. We fear that New York’s Chinese community, where I live and work, is especially at risk. That is why we are prepared to leverage our culturally competent care model to bridge any gaps that may render our communities vulnerable.

I lead a non-profit health organization, SOMOS, that oversees the health delivery for nearly one million New Yorkers, mainly lower-income, and almost all immigrants like me. Our network includes over 300,000 Chinese patients in my neighborhood of Sunset Park, as well as neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan and Queens. We must prepare to meet the challenges of cases of infection now in New York.

In our backyard, over 100 possible cases are being examined on Long Island – mere miles from New York City. Rightfully, there is a reason for public concern, and we are already seeing the capability of this coronavirus to disrupt various aspects of our lives. The need to adopt best practices and to contain the virus - and mass hysteria - are critical.

In the last couple of days, the virus has pummeled the global financial market, caused countries to issue emergency declarations, and forced the cancellation of thousands of social and cultural gatherings. The virus has infected nearly 90,000 people, and over 3,000 deaths in at least 53 countries, including the first mortality in the United States, where over 75 known cases are reported.

Now is the time for government leaders to work closely with the community and family doctors who are the first line of defense in a public health crisis that hits vulnerable communities – especially those in immigrant communities who are typically isolated by culture, language, poverty, and customs.

Moreover, we must continue not to let fear rule our actions or scapegoat the Chinese and other Asian-American communities. With more panic and increased hysteria, there is a greater temptation to blame perceived outsiders. But when people play off stereotypes, it distracts from the actual risks and feeds into misinformation around the virus.

Let’s instead focus on the facts. Our community members must also understand that those who contract the coronavirus can recover unless they have other underlying health issues.

New Yorkers should follow precautions as they would during cold and flu season every year. But if you are feeling well and symptom-free, continue with your daily life per usual – go to work, run your errands, and spend time with your loved ones.

Likewise, good hygiene is imperative. Washing hands frequently and covering your mouth – with a tissue or your sleeve instead of your hand – when sneezing or coughing. Also, it is crucial to keep the home and surroundings clean and disinfected and to visit a local pharmacy or health care provider to get the flu shot for individuals who haven’t done so this year.

We must continue working together to educate and inform New Yorkers on symptoms to watch out for, ways to protect themselves and their loved ones, and what to do if there is a suspected case of infection.

Top symptoms include coughing, fever, and trouble breathing. Individuals experiencing these symptoms that have recently traveled to outbreak zones or had close contact with someone who recently visited outbreak zones should contact their healthcare provider immediately. Calling ahead and notifying providers of travel plans or symptoms after traveling are recommended best practices. Then, avoiding contact with others until medical professionals instruct otherwise.

Healthcare providers in Chinese communities and throughout New York City are ready to meet the challenges of the outbreak, but we cannot do it alone. We need cooperation from all our federal, state, and local partners to coordinate with health officials, healthcare networks, and community-based organizations to ensure we are doing everything to prevent the spread of the virus effectively.

If we all prepare, educate, and remain calm and vigilant to the signs and symptoms, we can avoid panic – and, most of all, ensure that New Yorkers stay healthy.

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Dr. Henry Chen, MD, is President of SOMOS, a non-profit, physician-led network of over 2,500 health care providers serving over 700,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in New York City. On Twitter @SOMOScare.

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