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Learn about the tools public health uses when modern medicine isn’t ready.

In the 20th century, deaths from infectious diseases plummeted thanks to the miracles of modern medicine:

  • You can get a vaccine to prevent many common diseases.
  • If you do get infected, medicines and procedures can often help.

But when a new virus like COVID-19 arrives, we need a Plan B. In public health, we call these options non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI).

A bridge to a vaccine.

Even when we have a vaccine, as we do with the flu, we ask you to take easy steps to keep diseases from spreading. When you wash your hands, cover your coughs, or stay home sick, you’re practicing basic NPIs.

Combined with vaccines and medicines, NPIs prevent even more people from dying from the flu.  Vaccines are our best weapon against the flu, and we hope they will eventually help us fight COVID-19, too.

But when we don’t have a vaccine, state and local officials can use powerful tools to slow the spread of disease.

A man washes his hands at a sink

The first steps.

We announced the first person in Pierce County contracted COVID-19 on March 6. A month before that, we began telling you about NPIs. Director of Health Dr. Anthony L-T Chen released a blog about how public health works to protect you

Because COVID-19 is so new and so dangerous, Gov. Jay Inslee and Dr. Chen used many NPIs we weren’t used to:

  • Many businesses closed.
  • Schools closed and modified how they taught.
  • People limited unnecessary trips.
  • You needed to wear a mask in public.
  • The state limited public gatherings.

You’ve heard us refer to NPIs as a dimmer switch. Fortunately, we haven’t needed to dial the switch all the way up and use the most restrictive NPIs.

You began wearing masks, staying distant from people not in your house, and following basic hygiene. That means COVID-19 began spreading more slowly and we haven’t had to do things like close off neighborhoods, as some countries have.

We aren’t across the bridge yet, but we’ll get there together.

Our case numbers went up after Memorial Day. They went up again after the Fourth of July. We’re still waiting to learn the effects of Labor Day.

But we do know the months ahead are crucial. Beginning with Halloween, we’ll be in a stretch of holidays when people traditionally gather with others to celebrate. As we’ve seen, those events can very quickly drive our numbers up. And soon, we’ll be in flu season.

We hope the NPIs you’ve learned to use so well will slow the flu this season. But we fear what will happen if we experience a bad flu season. Combined with another COVID-19 wave, those with flu-related illnesses could quickly overwhelm our hospitals.

So, please:

NPIs only work when we all work together. To learn more about COVID-19, go to tpchd.org/coronavirus. To learn more about the flu, visit tpchd.org/flu.