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How to protect yourself and keep your family safe as coronavirus spreads

Public health announce new hotline

The Illinois Department of Public Health announcement Monday that a fourth person in the state has contracted COVID-19, commonly called coronavirus, sent more people to pharmacies and grocery stores in an attempt to protect themselves and their families.

Jugs of water and hand sanitizer were hot commodities at area grocery stores on Monday. But hand-washing is still the best way to limit the spread of germs, said Beth Squires, public health program coordinator for Northern Illinois University's College of Health and Human Sciences.

"This new virus is scary because it's new in the human population and we don't know exactly what it's going to do," Squires said. "But honestly, the one reassuring message you can get to the public is the easier and most effective prevention is regular washing of your hands. You don't need to buy face masks. Let's calm down."

Squires and other government officials and health professionals also have been releasing tips on how to protect yourself and your family in the face of this viral outbreak that has crossed oceans.

At a news conference Monday in Chicago with Governor JB Pritzker, Ngozi Ezike of the Illinois Department of Public Health said there were 286 people in the state being monitored for possible coronavirus. The first two people to contract the virus the state have made a full recovery, officials said.

When the H1N1 – or "swine flu" – virus exploded in 2009, Squires actually contracted it herself, she said. Like many who also suffered through the illness, she survived just fine.

"I spiked a fever, I felt bad, but I recovered," she said.

Squires said that those most at risk if they contract coronavirus are the elderly, the very young, and those who are immuno-compromised – much like the flu.

"The majority of people are going to recover from this," she said.

What to stock in your home

The Center for Disease Control and ready.gov, from the United States Department of Homeland Security, also recommend families keep an emergency kit at home in the event of a disaster or other crisis.

General recommended emergency kit supplies include sterile gloves, antibiotic ointment, thermometers, feminine products, water, high-energy foods such as peanut butter, dry cereal, nuts, granola, and crackers.

The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Saturday urged people to stop buying face masks. Squires said if you feel ill and need to leave the house, you should wear a mask if only to help others not catch your germs.

Pharmacist Tim Lehan, owner of DeKalb-based Lehan Drugs which also has pharmacies in Rockford, Freeport, and Sycamore, urged people to remember the flu season is still spiking. He said if you haven't already, get a flu shot.

"Don't shake hands, don't touch your face, wash your hands," Lehan said when asked about preventative measures to ensure people stay healthy. "There's a short supply on hand sanitizer."

When asked if families should stock their medicine cabinets with items in the event of voluntary or involuntary quarantine, Lehan said no. "That's what creates a shortage," he said. "A lot more people die from the regular flu than this."

Squires disagreed, however, and said she recommends making sure your home medicine cabinet is stocked with pain medication, such as normal over-the-counter cold and flu remedies.

Kitchen pantries should be stocked with canned food that can last in the event you can't leave your home. Squires said she also recommends utilizing delivery services such as grocery and food deliveries to prevent person-to-person contact.

"Review your family and friends network to see who can possibly run errands for you," Squires said. "They can leave items on the porch. And don't forget about pets. Make sure you have prescriptions up to date and refill them if they need."

How to prevent the spread of germs

There are no confirmed cases other than the four reported, though families should still take precautions, which should include washing hands before you eat, after you use the bathroom, electing to not go to work if you feel ill, and ensuring your children know how important it is to keep clean, Squires said.

"For parents with kids, make it fun," Squires said. "When they learn how to wash their hands, sing the A-B-C song or 'Happy Birthday' or 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' Talk to the kids. You don't have to say 'There's a dangerous, scary new disease,' but just check in. Make sure you say, 'It's really good to help prevent germs.' "

Imran Kazmi, Northwestern Medicine internal medicine specialist with a clinic in Elgin, said repetition and reward is key with children.

"Keep telling the same message over and over," Kazmi said. "Wash your hands, don't share your cups or straws with other people."

For adults in the working world, Squires recommends keeping tabs on how you're feeling. For viruses like the flu or coronavirus, a high fever in the 101 to 103 range can be a sign that should stay home, or seek medical advice.

"This is also the time of year where you're just getting everything," Squires said. "Not only do we have the influenza and coronavirus, but we also have the common cold. Just monitor your symptoms."

Unlike the common cold, coronavirus symptoms don't include a runny nose. Instead, symptoms include respiratory issues such as shortness of breath, persistent cough and high fevers, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"If you're having symptoms, you should stay home, not return to work or school until you are fever free for at least the last 24 hours," Kazmi said. "You cannot completely minimize the risk of transmission, however, you can still contain it."

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