March 2, 2020 · Personal Security

Coronavirus Outbreak: Preparing for COVID-19 in the United States

I'm getting a lot of questions about how I have prepared to ride out this outbreak since I sit in the middle of the clusters that are popping up around the Bay Area. People are curious, but mostly they just want to know what they should be doing to prepare given that most communities seem likely to be impacted at some point.

First, some disclaimers. One size fits all advice for disaster prep doesn't exist. You have to tweak all recommendations for your particular situation. This is especially true if you have a chronic health condition, mobility issue, or other circumstances that could compound your challenges. The guidance here comes from an American perspective and is written primarily for an American audience but the general principles discussed here are likely useful with some adjustment for locale.

The first thing you should do is study familiarize yourself with federal, state, and local government recommendations. Ready.gov is an excellent place to start. Your county should have an emergency management organization (like this one) that will provide recommendations as well. These outbreak specific resources are particularly useful:

A couple of weeks ago I also put together a set of resources that can help you track reliable sources as the outbreak develops.

I've survived more than my share of disruptive events. I've gone without power or other services for weeks after hurricanes. It's not fun but it does teach you what's important and where the pain points are when society isn't functioning at 100%. I've also lived through several rounds of panic buying and large scale evacuations. As a result, I tend to stay somewhat prepared. I've gotten pretty good at anticipating the panic and beating the crowds.

It helps (a lot) that I track events like this for a living. I started slowly preparing in January. I monitored activity and China and could see that shortages immediately arose for masks and other products related to health and hygiene. So I picked up some personal protective gear and disenfectants early on. I wasn't particularly worried at the time but you can't wait until everyone is worried to act. That's panic, not preparedness. I should also note that I have some familiarity with both the gear and hygeine practices from working in a clincal setting in the past. Proper hygeine requires significant thought and effort even with protective gear.

Perhaps the most critical step is proactively managing a chronic health issue that requires life sustaining medication or services. This could mean reaching out to your doctor and insurance company to see if additional supplies of medication can be purchased in advance or buying a supply of over the counter alternatives as a backup. A disruption in the supply chain and production facilities of critical medications is one of the more potentially significant risks in this scenario. Unfortunately, physicians and insurance companies aren't always helpful in cases like this. Start these conversations early, document them if they aren't successful, and be persistent as the situation continues to worsen. You may have to fight for this. Online forums and communities of folks who share the same challenges can be helpful sources when trying to navigate a system that all too often penalizes patients trying to responsibly manage their own health.

You may have other circumstances that present challenges. These should be tackled as early as possible in your planning. This could be an elderly relative who will require special assistance, livestock or pets that require significant levels of care, or a business that is likely to be impacted - perhaps catastrophically. These issues are often way more important than lining up at Costco with way too much bottled water, bulk treats, and wine. Set aside some time to think deeply about where you, your family, and your friends are vulnerable and start mitigating those problems now.

I staggered the rest of my arrangements over February. I bought a little extra each time I went grocery shopping. I also picked up a decent supply of over the counter flu medication. You just need enough to get yourself (and your family) through a couple of weeks of disruption - and the temporary shortages created by the panic buying of others. We're not talking about a Mad Max scenario here. The water supply is unlikely to be impacted. You will almost certainly have electricity. The goal is to minimize your exposure to the public by reducing trips to acquire consumables. You also might have to eliminate travel altogether if you happen to get sick. The bottom line is that you just need a little extra on-hand. The world isn't ending.

Once life sustaining and other critical preparations are complete you can turn to other issues. This is an excellent time to get your documentation in order and share plans with family members and friends. I do this in a couple of ways. First, I have key original documents like my birth certificate, passport, zero balance credit cards, cash (foreign and domestic), insurance documents, financial documents, checks, some encrypted files, and reserves of key medication in a heavy duty fireproof bag that's always ready to go. I also have digital versions of key documents that I encrypt locally and store in the cloud. This ensures that I can grab and run with my critical documents in an emergency or that I will have easy access to digital versions if I happen to lose all of my possessions during an international trip.

At the very least, round up your key insurance and medical information so that you don't have to struggle with that if you fall ill. Planning this in advance, and sharing guidance for your care with others, will also allow you to act quickly to transfer coordination of your care should you become incapacitated. Reasonably secure encrypted systems like Keybase, ProtonMail, Tresorit, most password managers, and encrypted notetaking apps like Standard Notes can make storing and recalling this kind of critical information painless in an emergency as long as you're comfortable using them.

Once you've nailed down the basic preparations for yourself and your family you may want to give some thought to your community. You might have elderly neighbor who needs assistance. You might want to create an email or call list for your neighborhood. There will almost certainly be people around you who could use some assistance or at least a point of contact.

Now a few words about what not to do. Don't give in to fear. Don't treat your neighbours badly. Don't buy survival products from people who peddle doom and gloom. Don't buy dangerous alternative cures. You're not going to need 10,000 rounds of ammo, gold bars, and bitcoin to survive this. Don't waste your money and your sanity preparing for TEOTWAWKI or some ridiculous SHTF scenario. People have been doing that for ages and we're still chugging along.


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