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What ‘stay at home’ means

STEUBENVILLE — Nicole Balakos has a hard time understanding why whole families are still strolling through grocery stores or parents are dropping their kids off at Wal-Mart.

Balakos, Jefferson County’s health commissioner, said it’s not the smartest thing you can be doing during a pandemic — particularly one that’s already infected more than 164,000 Americans and killed more than 3,100.

“We really need to act as if we’re all infected and everyone else is infected,” she said. “People need to follow the ‘stay-at- home’ orders and do everything they can to stop the community spread. The letter of the law says you can go out of your house and get groceries, but do you really need to go to the grocery store four times a day?”

At least 30 states and the District of Columbia have ordered residents to stay home and practice social distancing in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus and protecting those most vulnerable to it — early on, authorities defined that segment of the population as the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions, but more and more people in their 20s and 30s are now being stricken with the coronavirus.

“When you see a whole family out doing an errand when one will do, that’s violating the spirit of the order,” she said. “Yes, you’re allowed to go to the grocery store — but is it necessary for the entire family to go?”

Balakos said social distancing is critical: That means avoiding crowds and staying at least 6 feet away from anyone other than the people you live with.

“Those are family members who live under your roof,” she said. “Now is not the time to have Sunday dinner with aunts, cousins and uncles. ‘Family’ means your nuclear family — if you don’t live with them, you should not be visiting them unless they’re in need of services. And if you provide services to someone else, provide them with social distancing — if you need to take someone groceries, drop them off on the porch; if you need to go in the house and do something, they should go into a different room.”

If someone in the household works at an essential business, she said, “you should be practicing social distancing in the household.”

Balakos said frequent handwashing also is critical, particularly when you’ve been out of the house, are getting ready to eat or are spending time with someone particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Taken together, she said those kinds of measures would “protect the people who can’t protect themselves” and reduce the pressure on an already overtaxed health care system.

When people flout the ‘stay at home’ orders and social distancing recommendations, “it’s putting people at risk. We have elderly people here, and then if you overlay the map with what our population looks like … how many people are overweight, have diabetes or heart disease, lung issues or smoke (it’s scary).”

Balakos also pointed out the health department has a small staff grappling with its day-to-day responsibilities even in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. She said a big chunk of her time these days is spent talking to people who’ve tested positive and trying to figure out who’s crossed their path, as well as touching base daily with those who’ve been quarantined.

She’s also hoping people will “quit calling the health department to rat out neighbors and complain” about everything from children not being allowed on playgrounds to whether a business is essential or not.

“I can’t tell you how many calls we’ve had about golf courses. I’m not kidding, we’ve had over 100 calls … are they open, are they closed. If that’s the biggest problem I had right now, I’d be thrilled,” she said.

“And I don’t care if your neighbor is walking their dog. I don’t care about Facebook rumors. We have an extremely small staff, we cannot spend our time answering those types of questions on a daily basis, over and over. All us to do our work and get information to the public. We’re trying to educate people. We cannot answer individual questions or take complaints about your neighbor’s activities or tell you whether a business is essential or non-essential.”

Balakos said people with general questions should call the statewide phone bank at (833) 4-ASK-ODH.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “Every action we take now, we’ll see the impact of those actions in coming weeks so it’s critical that people do what’s asked of them.”

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