SF Public Health Officials, Chinese-Language Media Try to Ease Coronavirus Fears

San Francisco's Chinatown district is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States. (iStock)

Public health officials say people in the Bay Area run a low risk of falling ill from the novel coronavirus. Fewer than five people in the nine-county region are being treated for the flu-like disease.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health is working to spread that message to Cantonese and Mandarin speakers.

Dr. Sunny Pak, acting medical director of the Chinatown Public Health Center, said many of his patients rely on social media apps for news about the outbreaks.

“Unlike what happened with SARS 17 years ago, right now the spreading of information, whether true or false, is even faster,” Pak said.

That, Pak said, can lead to panic, especially among people with family and friends in China and other countries more directly affected by the virus.

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“Because they're getting a lot of information via WeChat and/or WhatsApp, they're literally instantaneously getting information that hasn't been vetted and it's unfortunate,” he said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that China has confirmed tens of thousands of cases, compared with  a dozen in the United States.

Last week, Pak and other San Francisco public health officials met with reporters from local ethnic-language media outlets — including KTSF Channel 26 television, the Sing Tao newspaper and radio station and the World Journal — to help convey the most accurate information from the CDC. That effort includes informational packets translated into Chinese.

Chinese-language radio and television stations in the Bay Area are broadcasting reports in Cantonese and Mandarin, depending on the program.

Flora Xu, a senior reporter with Sing Tao Daily, said the Chinatown-based paper is committed to sharing trustworthy news about the outbreak.

She said the paper urges readers “to believe the city's information, the accurate information, and don't believe the rumors.”

“I also just encourage the Chinese community, believe the government [about] how to protect yourself,” Xu said.

She added that many Chinese Americans are less panicked about getting the disease than they are concerned about loved ones in China dealing with the virus and its economic fallout there.

Pak said he hopes accurate, up-to-date information can help Chinese Americans stay calm.

“At this point in the United States and definitely in San Francisco since there are no confirmed cases of any novel coronavirus, the risk of transmission or contracting the virus is still low,” Pak said. “But at the same time we still should be vigilant.”

The level of concern, he noted, should be similar to the flu — a much more present virus in this area.

San Francisco’s public health agency offers this message on its website:

“There are zero confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in San Francisco, and the risk to the general public is low. If a case is confirmed in San Francisco we will announce it right here. … Proper handwashing is the most effective way to prevent illness. This means washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.”

In addition to handwashing, Pak said that covering your mouth when coughing and staying isolated if you're feeling sick (you can call your health provider from home), are two important ways to protect against the potential spread of coronavirus or other illness.

San Francisco public health and emergency management officials met with neighborhood leaders at City College’s Chinatown/North Beach Center campus to address concerns and provide information on how to protect against the potential spread of novel coronavirus.

Pak said that outreach to other San Francisco neighborhoods with large Chinese American populations, like the Richmond, Sunset and the Excelsior District, is also a priority for public  health officials.