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In this episode of Customer Service Secrets, Gabe Larsen invites Dr. Merilee Larsen to discuss the essential and non essential things we need in this time of crisis and how we can be prepared. Merilee is the Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University. Her background is in disaster thinking and education. She has been at Utah Valley University for 20 years and within that time, she has switched from Emergency Medical Services to Public Health. Dr. Larsen has a Masters in Public Health and a Doctorate in Health Education. She is very authoritative on crisis prevention and, during her time with Gabe, she shared some valuable insights for all.
Fear, Hoarding, and What You Actually Need
It has been very clear that the current COVID-19 pandemic has struck fear into the American public and citizens of all nations. The United States has experienced an interesting side effect of the pandemic: excessive purchasing at grocery stores. On that note, Merilee did an experiment with her social media followers. She wanted to determine which items were out of stock and the location tied to that shortage. Dr. Larsen found that cleaning products are out of stock in most places, but results also showed that the Midwest has been buying superfluous amounts of toilet paper. Merilee also mentioned that the excessive shopping and hoarding of items, like toilet paper, is driven by fear. It has become a trend that people participate in because they see others doing it. She states, “I have a friend who went to the store to get paper cups and came home with $300 worth of groceries. And when I said, ‘Well, why did you do this?’ She said, ‘Well, everybody else was doing it and I didn’t know what to do.’”
The solution is not to hoard. Rather, we should be preparing for a 14 day quarantine. Merilee clearly states that we need to have a good food supply. Fruits and vegetables, non perishable items, and a sweet treat to help on tough days. While having an abundance of toilet paper isn’t necessary, she recommends focusing on other toiletries like shampoo or toothpaste and staying on top of prescription medications. By focusing on the daily essentials without hyper focusing on toilet paper, people will be more prepared and less stressed for the coming weeks.
Physical and Mental Health Tips
In her dialogue with Gabe, Dr. Larsen gives listeners a suggestion to promote physical health: we should be washing our hands for at least 20 seconds. While this is simple, it will make a big difference. The disease spreads when “droplets” land on a surface, a person touches those surfaces and then that person proceeds to touch their face. By washing your hands, it is less likely for the virus to spread. On top of that, daily physical exercise is recommended not only for physical health, but especially for mental health. Combined with good nutrition, exercise can help calm a lot of the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In addition, because of the need for isolation and the extended time people are spending with their families, Merilee recommends having a family mental health plan. She states, “Talk over this with your families. Make sure that there’s a plan so you guys can handle being in close quarters together or with your roommates or wherever you’re at. … Have a plan for conflict and … a plan to handle anxiety and depression in your home.”
What is Social Distancing and How is the World Going to Change Because of the Pandemic?
Social distancing, the buzzword of 2020, is avoiding public places and large gatherings. Most states have regulated the size of gatherings or have been placed in a state of emergency. However, when people are required to leave their houses for certain things, like going to the grocery store, the public has been asked to be socially distant. When possible, it is recommended that we stay at least 6 feet apart.
Merilee adds a visual to social distancing, she says, “imagine as if you are holding a hula hoop around you. Don’t let anybody into your hula hoop space.” This prevents the spread of the virus further. Merilee and Gabe also comment on how society will change because of the pandemic. Isolation will probably become a common practice for the flu, the custom of shaking hands might go away and new social norms will appear. Businesses are learning to be flexible, and with technology, employees are becoming a “remote workforce.” Despite all these changes, Merilee is hopeful for the future. One of her final statements is: “I have high hopes for us. I hope that we can — I think we can come out of it, but yes, I think it will change how we are doing things and how we continue to do things.”
To learn more about individual and public health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, check out the Customer Service Secrets podcast, and be sure to subscribe for new episodes each Thursday.
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Full Episode Transcript:
Being Prepared in a Time of Crisis with Dr. Merilee Larsen
Intro Voice: (00:04)
You’re listening to the Customer Service Secrets Podcast by Kustomer.
Gabe Larsen: (00:11)
Hi, welcome everybody. We’re excited to dive in. I think this will be a fun talk track today. We’re going to be talking about preparedness during today’s crises. And to do that, we brought on Dr. Merilee Larsen, currently Assistant Professor of Public Health at Utah Valley University. Merille thanks for joining. How are you?
Merilee Larsen: (00:32)
Good, thanks Gabe. Thanks for having me on.
Gabe Larsen: (00:34)
Yeah, I think this will be obviously very timely. It’s a fun talk track. Before we dive in, maybe you could take just a minute and tell us a little bit about yourself and kind of your background.
Merilee Larsen: (00:45)
Sure. Thanks. Like you said, I am an Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University. I have been there for 20 years. I spent the first decade teaching in emergency services. So I have a background in EMS and emergency services and then the second half I have been in public health. So I have kind of an interesting combination of emergency services and planning and preparedness coupled with public health. I have a Master’s in public health and a Doctorate in health education that I got from Loma Linda University. And so my research base is in disaster thinking and in education. And that’s kind of my background.
Gabe Larsen: (01:27)
Well that’s very fitting because that seems to be where we are; the word disaster. A lot going on in the world and we want to dive into it. As we talked a little bit before we jumped on, right? I mean, obviously we have an interesting situation going on in the world today. Many business leaders kind of wondering what’s going on with this virus that’s going around. How can we be thinking about it? And so today we wanted to dive into that and figure out how can we think about preparedness in these times of crisis. So maybe let’s start big picture for a minute and I do want to narrow in a little bit on this Coronavirus. Maybe talk to us about just the basics of it. I think there are some spells about how do you get it, myths about how dangerous it is. Big picture, what’s going on here?
Merilee Larsen: (02:13)
Okay. So the Coronavirus or COVID-19, it is basically kind of a major virus. It can infect both animals and people. We have had outbreaks of coronaviruses in the past. If you think of like the SARS outbreak or, there’s a Middle East outbreak called MERS. Both of those we’ve had. Normally SARS type infections can cause very mild respiratory infections, like the common cold. But this particular virus is crazy. It’s kind of a gangbusters virus. So it’s big. Currently right now, CDC estimates in the United States, we have 300,000 infected as of today. So it’s pretty major. And the reason that’s so big is because it’s new. Nobody’s ever had it before. Nobody’s ever had this kind before. So it is highly transmissible and easy to get.
Gabe Larsen: (03:04)
Yeah. When you talk about the virus itself; anything that jumps out to you as things that… either ways people can get it or ways people can’t get it. I’ve heard some things about my kids swinging on a swing set, boxes coming from Amazon versus direct contact; sneezing, coughing. Any kind of thing you’d highlight there as people think about some of these different things that they’re trying to avoid in order to not get this?
Merilee Larsen: (03:36)
Sure. Well, things to avoid would be direct contact. Once you have it, you have these, basically droplets that you can breathe out or you can talk out or you cough or sneeze on somebody, which is super gross, and it travels through the air. So, most of these respiratory droplets, they just kind of fall to the ground in front of you. But if you’re in super close contact, you’re going to breathe them in or you’re going to get them on your hands and touch your eyeballs. If you’re a kid, you’re going to pick your nose. I mean, and you’re going to get sick. We don’t really know how long they can live on surfaces. Scientists are estimating three to four hours. So is there a little bit of a risk with going to the park or touching things that other people have touched? Yes. There’s a little bit of a risk, but there’s differences. Your Amazon boxes, you’re probably fine. They’re finding that it’s not living on cardboard for super long, but it can live on non porous surfaces. Like stainless steel, still up quite long there, but not on copper. So it just depends on what you’re touching really.
Gabe Larsen: (04:37)
I don’t know all the things that I’m touching. Now I’m thinking about it. [inaudible].
Merilee Larsen: (04:37)
Thank the Lord. Amazon, you’re fine. Prime, we’re going to all be okay. If we can’t get on prime we’re not getting it anywhere.
Gabe Larsen: (04:51)
That’s good, right? Obviously, everything is shutting down. That’s good. Kind of set the level. I know a lot of people read that, but just to kind of set the table. I think the more important thing is where do you go next? Right? So, knowing the times have changed, knowing that we are in a crisis situation, you are hearing things like people making a run for this crazy stuff going on with toilet paper. Right? And that being almost a psychological thing of preparedness. As you think about preparedness and thinking about the times we’re in, how should we be prepared or how can we prepare?
Merilee Larsen: (05:24)
Well, for starters, you’re not going to need this much toilet paper. You’re going to be fine. Everybody’s going to be fine. We need to back off the toilet paper, otherwise you’re going to be very hungry, but you’ll have tons of toilet paper. So we want to try and avoid that whole thing if we can.
Gabe Larsen: (05:43)
Have you seen some of those videos? It’s just crazy, right?
Merilee Larsen: (05:43)
Yes, it’s insanity!
Gabe Larsen: (05:47)
I mean, look, you gotta go, you gotta get what you can get. But, it’s like what is this craziness with toilet paper? But it must be…
Merilee Larsen: (05:54)
I don’t know.
Gabe Larsen: (05:54)
…Our brains that knows we’re panicking and so that’s all we know how to get.
Merilee Larsen: (05:58)
Toilet paper and water. So I hope you’re going to be okay. But, your systems are going to be fine. You can drink water out of your tap. You’re just fine. Toilet paper, you probably need enough in your house for 14 days, maybe, maybe three weeks. I don’t know. I don’t know how much you’re going through, but you don’t need that much. So, if you’re looking at true preparedness and if you’re looking at their recommendation that FEMA is making, you do need food. You need at least 14 days worth of food. So that means perishable and non-perishable and some candy. Everybody’s going to need some candy. So just get some good stuff that you can keep in your house and that you have enough for everyone to eat. Candy and novelty items are really good to kind of break up things, especially if you have kids or if you’re like me and you just kind of need something at the end of the day so you don’t go crazy. Like you just need a little, you need a Twix once in a while. So, some shelter items that are always nice to have on hand. Like if you have a wood burning stove; it’s freezing here in Utah right now, so you might need some wood or something like that. Propane is always nice if you have access to that. So, everybody you need to wash your hands and do it for 20 seconds. Dipping it under the water and pulling it back out, that doesn’t work.
Gabe Larsen: (07:14)
I mean this is obviously, I don’t want to mock it but, this is obviously real. [inaudible] Follow some of the best practices you’re seeing around the 20 second thing, etc.
Gabe Larsen: (07:24)
Right. Sing the chorus to your favorite song; a little “Mr. Brightside,” a little “Touch of Grey,” whatever. Sing the chorus to it while you’re washing your hands. It’s perfect. 20 seconds. Do it when you leave your house and come back, wash your hands, kids too. And then watch your face. Don’t touch your eyeballs. Don’t pick at your teeth, keep your hands out of your face. You’re going to need some household goods. You probably need some laundry soap. You probably need some dish detergent, some paper towels. The big thing that we always talk about is cash. You really need to have or work on having enough savings that if you are out of work for however long this quarantine lasts, that you can afford it. You can afford to pay your utilities, you can afford to pay door dash; because we all know we’re going to use it. Then you just have enough cash on hand so that you can pay your bills for two weeks or more. So you need some stuff if you’re bored. You need maybe some board games, some books, some things to pass the time, which is a big one. If you have babies, you need baby supplies. Diapers, again, don’t hoard. But, you do need enough diapers, wipes and formula for your little ones. And if you have a neighbor that has one, they could always use a little help. Personal hygiene items; shampoo, conditioner, tissues, floss. We all appreciate it, some floss. Prescription medications are huge. If you have a prescription for something, make sure that you get those filled. I recently had to have a prescription filled for my little boy and we waited for three days because they had so many prescriptions to fill. So make sure you’re ahead of the game on that. Talk to your doctor and if you have pets, please get some pet food for your pets at least long enough that if you have to stay inside for two weeks or more that they’re covered as well. So mentally, we also talk about mental preparedness. Talk over this with your families. Make sure that there’s a plan so you guys can handle being in close quarters together or with your roommates or wherever you’re at. And if you have a plan for conflict and if you have a plan to handle anxiety and depression in your home. The mental aspect is just as important as the physical, always, especially in this time. There’s a lot of fear going on right now and we have to help each other and we have to help…
Gabe Larsen: (09:33)
Yeah, it does seem like one of the areas that people, I mean, and I think we’re hoarding different items is as we kind of go into this nervous preparedness or whatever that psychological state is of hoarding. But, yeah, the mental thing is a little bit overlooked. Whether that’s in work or at home. I definitely find that that resonates with me as I’ve talked to different employees. I’ve got obviously family myself and there are ups and downs. Is there anything, I mean you mentioned kind of having a plan. Is there other things from the mental preparedness standpoint? A little bit of exercise, psychological, well I don’t know if there’s psychological help that is available to different people, but any other thoughts on the mental side?
Merilee Larsen: (10:14)
Yes, mental — always, exercise is great for mental health. It does wonders for anxiety and depression. There’s countless amounts of studies and research that’s behind that. So really if you’re feeling an anxiety attack, come on, I would recommend for you to go out and take a walk or a run and that can really help pull back some of those symptoms. Other things mentally is to eat a little better, to choose a little bit healthier food and that can help mental clarity as well. There’s an app called Calm, which is fantastic, that has meditations and things like that on it that are really helpful. And there are a few apps that you can find out there that have chats with psychologists. So if you need to, there’s an option for that kind of thing as well. Now that we can’t really — there are a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists who will do face to face over zoom and that option is out there as well. But I would really tell you to try and get a little more exercise, try and eat a little better. And if you’re feeling it come on, go put some running shoes on and go for a walk.
Gabe Larsen: (11:14)
I like the mental and physical part. And do you have any thoughts as to why — I mean, is that just human nature? I mean, we joked a little bit about the hoarding and the toilet paper and stuff, but is that just the grasping at straws mentality or why do you feel like people went that direction versus maybe some of the recommendations you said, which was a little more food preparedness or a little more mental preparedness. Is that just the human emotion kicking in?
Merilee Larsen: (11:43)
I think it’s fear too. And it’s kind of interesting as I’ve been talking to people and doing a little more research during this time, I have a friend who went to the store to get paper cups and came home with $300 worth of groceries. And when I said, well, why did you do this? She said, well, everybody else was doing it and I didn’t know what to do. So I think we’re kind of following each other and we are very panicked about the unknown. We don’t know what the next six weeks is going to look like. And we’re afraid to go without. And you know, people are choosing different things. We see our neighbors…
Gabe Larsen: (12:18)
Because we all deal with it a little differently, right? Now you did a little exercise. What was that? You did a little exercise where you had different people send to you as they were going around and shopping. What was that?
Merilee Larsen: (12:27)
I did. On my social media I asked my friends from all over the world to tell me what their grocery stores were out of and where they were located. And it was kind of fascinating to see the Island of Tahiti was out of hand sanitizer of all things. And we had — I had friends and it seemed like more in the Midwest toilet paper seemed to go like wildfire. But in other places, it was hand sanitizer and Clorox. So it was kind of fascinating to see what was happening where and where the panic was.
Gabe Larsen: (13:00)
Hmm. Interesting. We’ll have to check that out. As we think about businesses, I want to turn just for a minute. Definitely we’ve got companies with the economic struggles now that this virus is putting on the economy. I mean it’s obviously very real and many people are facing dire and sometimes interesting situations. We’ve got business leaders trying to take care of their customers and their employees. As you think about preparedness, and maybe more on the employee side, is there anything you’d recommend to business leaders — and maybe it goes down kind of that mental preparation and enabling some of that as people are facing things in their personal life and also trying to manage work — that you’d recommend to them as they try to navigate the business side of the preparedness equation?
Merilee Larsen: (13:52)
The business side is kind of an interesting side. This is a side that there’s so many facets to. But really a lot of the top, I would really talk about flexibility. I think too, as a business leader, I would look to see how flexible we could have our employees be. Can we reduce our meetings and our travel? Can we do more on Zoom? But can we still somehow stay connected? Maybe have morning coffee over Zoom or whatever it looks like for you. Being transparent with your employees as well as your customers I feel like that is huge as well. And if you’re having your workers come into your workplace, really stress hygiene and making sure that everyone’s taken care of in the building, but then when they leave so that we’re not just becoming a hotbed of illness and then carrying it out to the families. But really be flexible. Really have your people self-monitor if they’re feeling sick and if they need to, have the flexibility that they can isolate or quarantine at home. That is a great way to help.
Gabe Larsen: (14:54)
And make it a little bit easier both for the business as well as I think for society as a whole. We were talking a little bit about social distancing and obviously that’s become a big buzzword. It is something people are kind of practicing, but I don’t know if I know what it means. I know what it generally means. But, what are the best practices for social distancing that you have in mind? Again, I’m thinking of some people, you know, a lot of businesses are obviously closing. Some are mandatorily staying open to others. You’ve got factories, you got Amazon; people are trying to still manage. Best practices in this kind of social distancing for people who are put in a situation where they may need to be around others and interact with others?
Merilee Larsen: (15:40)
Social distancing is really, you’re trying to avoid large events, mass gatherings. So, imagine as if you are holding a hula hoop around you, don’t let anybody into your hula hoop space.
Gabe Larsen: (15:51)
I like that.
Merilee Larsen: (15:51)
Socially distance. No close talkers. Keep them outside of your space.
Gabe Larsen: (15:57)
Yeah. Is there kind of that hula-hoop, is that about the right distance? I mean, is it 12 feet, six? I think I’ve heard six feet.
Merilee Larsen: (16:05)
Six feet is great, but if you’re in a situation where you’re in a meeting, then maybe just try for that hula hoop distance. Something is better than nothing.
Gabe Larsen: (16:16)
Wow. Crazy times, right? I’m starting to kick off — I went to one conference, this is now weeks ago, but it was just the beginning of it and they kind of, you know, no handshake conference, right? So people were, it was awkward. We were doing this elbow thing and fist bump thing and that was a month before. I wonder how this — assuming things do continue, assuming things improve — how this will just change. Obviously we’ve got the flexible workforce, a remote workforce. We’ve got interactions between people as they talk about different waves, if you’ll kind of get rid of things like social norms of shaking hands? Some people say the world will never be the same, but hopefully we have semblance here.
Merilee Larsen: (17:01)
Well, hopefully, hopefully we can get back. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time though. Like if you look at the last time we used a federal quarantine, the last time we were totally restricted was the Spanish flu in 1918.
Gabe Larsen: (17:14)
Is that right?
Merilee Larsen: (17:14)
Yeah. So, it took a little bit of time to come out of that. But I think I have high hopes for us. I hope that we can, I think we can come out of it, but yes, I think it will change how we are doing things and how we continue to do things. We may socially choose to isolate in flu season normally. And that’s not a bad thing. So this may change the atmosphere of public health, which I don’t hate. It’ll be okay.
Gabe Larsen: (17:44)
1918, right? This definitely is unprecedented. I mean, I’m not that old, but I’ve lived through the 2000s, 2004, 2008. This is definitely different than all of those so it is uncharted water. But, real interesting talk track, appreciate you jumping on and talking through just some of the different things companies and people can do to get prepared in these times of crisis. So, if someone wants to get in touch with you or just learn a little bit more about some of the things you’re thinking about, is there a good way to contact or stay connected?
Merilee Larsen: (18:16)
Yeah, my LinkedIn page is great or you can feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Gabe Larsen: (18:24)
Awesome awesome. All right, well, really appreciate you taking the time and for the audience. Have a fantastic day.
Merilee Larsen: (18:29)
Exit Voice: (18:38)
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