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Lessons learned from pandemics past
Prairie Doc
Andrew Ellsworth MD

When I come home from a day at the clinic and hospital, there is no better feeling than my children running up to give me a big hug. For the past couple of weeks, I have had to remind them to stop, and just do an air hug until I have had a chance to change clothes and shower. The idea is to wash away any germs and decrease the risk of getting my family sick after working with several patients and sick people during the day. Maybe these efforts are too much, or maybe they are not enough. 

The Covid-19 virus spreads through respiratory droplets, from talking, coughing, or sneezing, and appears to also spread via a fecal-oral route. The fecal-oral route is how the stomach flu often spreads, and many of us know how easily that circulates through families and daycares. Someone who has been to the bathroom may touch a doorknob or a serving spoon, which someone else touches before eating, and they may become infected. That’s why we need to wash our hands well and avoid touching our face and our food.  

Unfortunately, the virus can spread from people that do not have symptoms, or before they have symptoms which is why, I worry, I may not be doing enough to protect my family from the one person who puts them at the biggest risk: me. Some doctors and nurses are deciding to avoid their families altogether and live in the garage or the basement when they come home. I haven’t decided to do that yet, but maybe I should, or maybe I will. 

Pandemics and disease have separated families for longer than the history books can tell us. Before they knew the cause, our ancestors knew that if someone had smallpox, quarantine and fire were the only ways to help prevent the spread. People, houses, and entire cities were quarantined. Disease has arguably decided more wars than the battles themselves. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, soldiers from Fort Riley carried the disease to other American military bases and from there, to the battlefront in Europe.  

These lessons of history helped us learn about how to control disease. Advancements in infection control, medicines, and vaccinations have turned the tide and made many diseases a distant memory. For Covid-19, we do not yet have proven medications or a vaccine. However, we are learning more every day how to help those who are sick and how to better prevent the spread. In the meantime, my family and I will continue to practice social distancing and similar efforts to do our part to flatten the curve and slow the spread, to give us time to find treatments to combat this current scourge on humanity.  

Andrew Ellsworth, MD is part of The Prairie Doc team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota. For more information, visit