With the novel coronavirus COVID-19 now in 80 countries with over 100,000 cases confirmed—and already 3900 deaths from the infection, many are panicking about the spread of the virus and how it might impact our own families—and ourselves. Over 600 cases are now in the United States with 142 cases alone in New York with a 35% increase in just one day. Not to mention what we’re seeing in places like Italy and now Spain.

Dr. Timothy Flanigan, a Catholic deacon and professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Alpert Medical School of Brown University, says the new strain of coronavirus must be taken very seriously, and although fear is justified, it’s also understandable.

“What you’re seeing is new and it’s unexpected. It raises a level of fear but it also requires adaptation in the medical system. So any patient that comes in with a concern of the novel coronavirus has to be fully isolated. And that is a difficult thing to do and the tests have to be run.”

Dr. Flanigan said it’s precisely the accessibility to testing that is the culprit behind these staggering numbers of infection. A couple of months ago, testing for the virus was more restricted, but now that test kits are available, the numbers will continue to rise.

“In the next two weeks as we ramp testing up tenfold, we will certainly have tenfold more cases. But I can’t tell you how good our healthcare system is of taking care of folks who really need it.”

Speaking to Teresa Tomeo, host of the Catholic Connection on EWTN radio March 9, Dr. Flanigan pointed to cases in China where the virus was first detected late last year are now going down. The doctor said we are in a completely different phase.

“We’re just on the upswing of this in the United States, if you look at the increase in cases in other countries when the disease really entered in and spread. So every day, we’re hearing about new infections, new states, and it is increasing, so it is a big big worry, there’s no question about it.”

Coronavirus itself is nothing new. There have been recent strains of it, but Dr. Flanigan said COVID-19 is very unique and is concerned about what this new mutation is doing.

“Now most of the old coronaviruses caused a cold. You felt crummy but it didn’t cause pneumonia. This virus has adapted so it now binds to receptors deep in the lung. So it can cause pneumonia, much the same way that influenza can cause pneumonia.”

As the old coronaviruses were upper respiratory tract infections, Dr. Flanigan says that this new adaptation, COVID-19, “can now infect the lower respiratory tract which means pneumonia. Which means if you have an underlying lung disease, and you get viral pneumonia, that can be a big challenge for you.”

And it’s also a heavy task for our hospitals with the surge of ER visits.

“It’s also going to cause chaos within the healthcare system because, since it’s new, we’re trying to evaluate and accommodate patients, but it requires a level of isolation which stresses the system.”

The silver lining, Dr. Flanigan says, is that proper hygiene and hand-washing can go a long way toward preventing illness.

“This spreads like other respiratory viral illnesses which means everyone can do something to help stop spread coronavirus. The community is not powerless. That doesn’t mean we need to stop life. We all play critical roles in our work in our families in our community, in our churches.”

Dr. Flanigan urges Catholics to not lose our Christian identity in the midst of the chaos and panic. The virus is most damaging for the elderly and those with underlying respiratory issues. Nursing homes in Washington state have been hit hard. Two more nursing home residents have died after contracting COVID-19, bringing the total number of deaths in King County to 22 and the statewide number to 24 as of March 10.

The vulnerability of nursing home patients and those at skilled nursing facilities have brought on new visiting rules, some nixing visitors altogether.

“They’ve got signs outside saying: if you’ve got a respiratory illness, don’t come in. Visit another time. Make sure you use the alcohol-based hand gels or wash your hands, and don’t go shaking all sorts of people’s hands—you’re there just to visit your relative—and stick to that which is good.”

Speaking to Tracy Sabol, lead anchor of EWTN News Nightly, Dr. Flanigan says we can’t stop taking care of those we love over fear of the virus.

“Give the support you need to—we can’t all isolate if all have jobs to do—for our family, for our friends, for our community, for work. So we need to be out and about, but we can stop the spread of this virus, which is usually person-to-person, hand-to-hand.”

Taking the proper precautions and maintaining impeccable hygiene are most important to quell this rampant bushfire of infection. Hand-washing, covering coughs, and staying home if one isn’t well is important. However there are real symptoms not to ignore and find the nearest hospital.

“When you’re very short of breath—when you can’t walk up a flight of stairs—you’re having trouble talking in full sentences. When you have a high fever, that’s a significant concern. When you become lightheaded, or dehydrated. All of those things, you’d always want to go to the emergency room.”

In the meantime, Dr. Flanigan reminds all us during this Lenten season to not stop living and help those in our families and communities during this difficult time, especially the most vulnerable—the elderly and those alone.

“We also need to take care of each other. A lot of people that are alone, that are fearful, that have no one to call in the middle of the night when they’re scared. And even when we’re suffering, we are never alone… that Christ is always with us.”

The call to be a Christian is a profound one and in the midst of this worry and hysteria over a virus now plaguing so many, Dr. Flanigan reminds us of this higher calling:  

“We can’t stop helping each other. Be Christians—that is the real challenge of life.”