After producing a video with Scottsville Town Councilor Dan Gritsko and his son, Caleb, that urges young people to take precautions to protect themselves and others from the novel coronavirus, Dr. Greg Gelburd, owner and founder of Downtown Family Health Care in Charlottesville, spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow freelance reporter Kate Hidalgo Bellows about the video, his tips for remaining healthy and safe and how his job has changed due to the pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KHB: Can you tell me a little bit about this video?
GG: Sure, so friends of mine, Dan Gritsko [and] his son Caleb Gritsko, who’s a videographer, got together at our church, Christ Community, a couple Sundays ago, and basically asked … to do about four videos. So I did one for our church community, I did one for my practice, Downtown Family Healthcare, and then I made a couple of real short ones more for people who are younger, like, as he said, aged 15 to 30, who might not be taking this very seriously. So, that’s how this got going. … I think Caleb just finished making the youth one [Tuesday] night. …
KHB: And who are the people in the video who are hiking? Is that his son?
GG: No, I think that’s just Google images or something like that. … [H]e probably found some stock videos. But I thought it was great. I learned exposure control on the side of the cliff climbing … in college, but it applies to any kind of outdoor stuff. But I think it also applies to this anxiety that we all have.
KHB: What is exposure control?
GG: So, exposure control, imagine that you’re doing a technical climb up a cliff on rope. And you look down and you get freaked out, which happened to me, and I kind of froze for a while because I was probably 50 feet up by then and, you know, scared to death. So my friend shouted down, “Exposure control. Don’t look down, don’t think about where you are. Just look, just focus on what you’re doing, and you’ll be safe.” Which is exactly right. So I also have used this throughout my life.
Like, if I was in the [emergency room] running a code, the last thing I want to do is start to think about the significance of what was going on because that might freeze me. And we know that when we panic, our brain doesn’t work well. We shut off all the neurons that go to our memory bank, which is the hippocampus. So as a result, I mean, I’ve been told that people don’t even remember the numbers 911 when they freak out and panic. So the idea of exposure control with the virus is knowing that basically the world is right now going through serious trauma that we haven’t gone through probably since the big wars or since the  Spanish flu epidemic, which killed 50 million people.
So things are really rough, and they’re rough for each of us personally, they’re rough for the town and for the country. But the idea is to not look so forward into the future that we get freaked out, you know, thinking ‘Well, what’s going to happen to me?’ because that kind of worry is really very paralyzing. And although I’ve only taken a few calls for people asking for medication for their anxiety, it would be very common at this point to want to relieve, you know, panic attacks with medication. So there’s a lot of behavioral modification that people can do, including exercise, sleep, eating well, meditating or praying. All those things are healthy for our mind. So those are the things, I think, that we should be doing instead of basically watching the news, to be honest with you.
I think local news sources online like yours or the local newspaper or the local television stations are probably about all we need to do. And perhaps reading something once in a while. But I am not a fan of video from a standpoint of national or international news. … [O]n the other side of that, obviously, is that, a video like I sent you all, sometimes a video is effective because it’s a positive message.
KHB: And so, what advice would you give to people to protect their mental health?
GG: Well, those things I mentioned. There’s plenty of biblical passages, but a lot of people aren’t following the Bible. So that may not be so important, but just thinking, like there’s a scripture that the birds in the air, they don’t worry about tomorrow. That’s about as basic as you get. But I think that the idea is to not look forward too far into the future. Because if we think about even just the next two months that our governor has asked us to stay in, I think that’s really, that can be horrifying for people.
Getting outside is really important … taking a walk through neighborhoods through the woods. I know that the parks are closing, but there’s still plenty of open spaces where people can go for a stroll, and it’s easy if it’s open [so] people don’t get too close to each other. And I think that the 6-foot distance is important outside as well as inside. So exercise, getting outside, eating well — I know that sometimes in stress, we tend to eat a bunch of junk that’s not so good for us, but our mind is far healthier because our mind is connected to our gut intimately. So we’re far healthier eating fresh foods and not too many carbs and certainly not processed foods. … I mean, I think snacks in small amounts, like a handful, is probably fine, but more than that I don’t think is very safe. It’s not very good for us, anyway. I expect people lose weight during this time, if they follow these guidelines. Getting enough sleep is important. And I’ve always been an advocate of meditation or prayer or breathing is a third word to use in this exercise.
I personally get up In the morning, like earlier than I might normally, …. and then I meditate for 30 to 60 minutes. I might read something inspirational, whether it’s from the Bible or listen to a short podcast or a devotional from one of the local pastors that comes online. But mostly it’s just listening. It’s just being quiet. And that quietness, it may not be so easy for people in the beginning. But the more they practice focusing on breathing, and breathing with our belly, instead of breathing with our chest, which is more relaxing. And then I think socializing with family, playing games, which are relaxing, reading books, that are distractions, distractions from the news, watching, you know, streaming movies, I think is good if they’re not going to stress us out as another way to kind of escape from the intensity of the things happening around us. Yeah, those are the basic things.
KHB: OK. And now turning to, you know, physical health. How can people protect themselves from really getting the coronavirus or exposing loved ones to the coronavirus without getting overwhelmed?
GG: Yeah, so socially distancing is important. Six feet is very important. I know that there’s a lot of controversy about masks and whether it’s to wear them. And I’ve heard experts from around the world saying opposite things. I personally think a mask is good, as long as it doesn’t give us [a] false sense of security. … So wearing a mask of any kind is good, of course an N95 is the best, but those are hard to find. Even making a mask out of a couple layers of a bandanna or something like that may be helpful. Then the other thing is our skin and our clothing.
So, of course, washing our hands if we’ve come in contact with groceries or doorknobs in public places, even bringing like wipes that have alcohol or bleach in them with us that we can use. Somebody told me last night to use the little baggies that we carry with our dogs to clean up their poop. Those little bags are very inexpensive. And if we’re going to open a doorknob that’s been in a public place, we could just take out a little baggie and have our purse or a pocket and use that instead or wash my hands immediately after if that’s possible or use a gel that has 70% alcohol. …
So our clothing — the coronavirus lasts for as long as a few days on our clothing. So if I brushed up against somebody who had the virus, and their hands were on their pants or their skirt or on their shirt or sweater or jacket, it might transmit to me. And then if I touch my face, which most of us tend to do, it seems like 100 times a minute, the virus can get through them through the mucosal membranes — that means the nose, the mouth and the eyes. So the virus doesn’t go through our skin, which is great. But what I do when I’m in my office during the day is I’ll come home and I’ll basically remove my outer clothing and then wash them before I even walk in the door. That way I’m less likely to sit down or touch my wife before I get them into a bag and take them upstairs and put them in the washer.
So we shouldn’t forget that our clothing can carry it, and if somebody coughed in my direction, even with a mask on, my sweatshirt might absorb the virus. And so that is why washing frequently our clothing is important. It is fortunate that soap and water or dishwasher detergent or clothing detergent is good for killing the virus. We’re very lucky in that regard.
KHB: And I was wondering you, you talked a little about this with the calls of people feeling anxious and wanting their medication. What has your job been like recently? What has the day-to-day look like?
GG: It’s a mixture of people coming in for the usual follow up, their wellness visits, their swollen ankles, their injuries, their infections or rashes, well child visits. But a lot of the conversation will at least touch upon the COVID virus, and if the patients don’t bring it up, I’ll bring it up just to make sure that they understand what they should be doing.
And our office has a separate entrance and separate place in the parking lot to test those who might have COVID virus. And actually, I think many of the practices in town are doing the same thing. That way they can, the people who might be infected don’t have to leave their car, which would expose other people to them, but they can just remain in their car, get a visit from the nurse practitioner, a physician, and the nurse, and be swabbed and tested for the flu, because the flu is like the cold virus. If the flu test is negative, then we suggest that if their symptoms are strong enough, or we have suspicion from their history, then we’ll go ahead and do a culture and either send it to [the University of Virginia] if they’ll accept it, which is a 24-hour turnaround, or we’ll send it through LabCorp, which will accept any of our cultures, but it may take up to a week to 10 days to return. Which, personally, I think that’s horrible that they are so far behind.
KHB: What would you say to people who want to help the community?
GG: Well, I think reaching out to our neighbors is important. Hopefully, we have their phone numbers. If not, if we can just knock on doors and step away from the door so we can find out if they have needs. It might be to run to the grocery store or some other service, maybe pay a bill down at City Hall, just something that they can’t do right now. That’s particularly true for people who are more elderly or who may have some disabilities that they can’t get out so easily. …. [There are] many people in this town, mostly the elderly, who don’t use internet, don’t use a smartphone, and those are people at more risk for not learning some of the news and also not being reached by other people. …
And then there’s some volunteering that can happen. I know that the food bank is presently, at least I heard that they were closed. But I think we need to pay attention to the local news to see what agencies need help right now that we can do either from our home or remaining socially distant at the office or the site.