Hollywood's Concierge Doctors Inundated With Coronavirus Calls

Hollywood Sign on November 16, 2005 in Los Angeles, California - Getty-H 2020
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Sought-after on-call physicians offer their thoughts on the coronavirus hitting L.A., share preventive measures to take and treatments Hollywood is asking for.

Stars. They're just like the rest of L.A. dwellers, fearful of the spreading coronavirus, but with a doctor on speed dial to probe with their questions.

"My day started at 8 a.m. on Sunday, with some hours of sleep here and there," Leslie D. Michelson, CEO and chairman of Private Health Management, told The Hollywood Reporter.

"We've been advising people for about four weeks now, since the very first case was presented," he said of the coronavirus. "We've been involved in similar global public health issues going back 20 years from Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), to two Ebola outbreaks and the Fukushima radiation release. Candidly, this is the one that has the greatest potential for severe global implications."

Those global implications are also expected to hit Hollywood on a smaller scale, including impacted shooting schedules, like for Mission: Impossible VII halting production in Italy, complicated travel concerns and fears of crowded places and red carpet events.

"That doesn't surprise me at all," said Dr. Kevin Brenner, a board-certified plastic surgeon of Beverly Hills. "Everyone's worried. Especially not just for VIP celebrities but agents, producers, directors. They don't just shoot in L.A. A lot of them film in Atlanta, Vancouver, in Europe. So travel, particularly international travel, is making people very nervous and jittery. A lot of people in general, celebrities and execs, are staying local."

While currently there are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus in Los Angeles County, the panic has spread throughout Hollywood circles. 

"What everyone wants to know is, how risky really is this thing," says Dr. Gary Cohan, a Beverly Hills internal medicine doctor. "Especially when it comes to travel, a lot of people have modified their travel plans and are curtailing non-essential travel. They're doing social distancing on their own, staying away from places where people might be sick."

Cohan described how with each of his clients, he is starting with the basics, explaining elementary infection control procedures. "A lot of these adults haven't even thought about this since their mommies were telling them what to do. The key thing we're telling everybody is wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. If you sing in your head or hum 'Happy Birthday to You' twice, that's how long it takes to really clean your hands."

A critical piece of information Cohan offers clients is that the coronavirus is not new, but in fact a family of viruses that can cause anything from the common cold all the way up to a severe acute respiratory syndrome, as seen in COVID-19. "It's really the elderly and people with underlying symptoms that are most at risk. Even 85 percent of the elderly that got it survived."

Brenner has been sharing with clients how the symptoms for the coronavirus are very similar to the symptoms of a bad flu — fever, cough, muscle aches. "The difference is that whereas with the annual flu, you feel crappy for a couple of days and then you start feeling better, coronavirus sends people into a downward spiral of respiratory illness whereby they have to go to hospitals," he said.

Cohan detailed a list of common questions Hollywood is asking, starting with how to find masks or how long a virus can last on surfaces ("up to nine days," Cohan said) and if special cleaning supplies are necessary. 

"Regular household cleaners that contain either alcohol or even a teeny amount of bleach will knock this guy out," Cohan explained. "Anything that'll take off grease and oil, like soap, will nail this coronavirus."

Cohan added, "Look, the antidote for fear is good information, preparation and reassurance. Is this as bad or as horrifying as Ebola? No, clearly not."

But, Michelson advised, "If you are going to places in which there are a lot of other people, whether it's a movie theater, a concert, a basketball game at the Staples Center, a hockey game, an airport, a conference or all the places where people tend to congregate, the supermarket, school — all of those types of places have risk of exposure."

COVID-19's symptoms having a long latency period (many people do not develop symptoms of this virus for 10 to 14 days) and the ease of transmission is concerning to those Hollywood medical professionals have advised. 

"I'd never tell anyone to stop their daily activities or day-to-day life. Just be cognizant," Dr. Michael Farzam, a concierge house call doctor, added.

While masks have nearly sold out across most health stores and retail stores, the specialty N95 masks are a non-starter. "It's interesting because people say, 'I need the N95 mask. It costs more. It sounds like it's heavy duty. We're Hollywood people, we can afford it,'" Michelson noted.

But it turns out, regular surgical masks are better than the N95 variety. "The reason is, people don't even know how to use the N95," according to Michelson.

Farzam added, "It doesn't really provide true benefit or protective features related to quarantining against the virus and, in some cases, can actually make things worse because you're breathing germy air in and out."

Cohan clarified that masks are warranted only if a person already has common cold symptoms. "Face masks, even the N95 face mask, will do just about nothing to protect a healthy person," he said. "You put a face mask on a sick person so they can't spew respiratory droplets that may be coming out of somebody's mouth or nose."

In scenarios such as on a Hollywood studio lot where an employee becomes symptomatic (which can be difficult to distinguish from flu symptoms initially) or there's reason to believe they've been exposed to COVID-19, Michelson advises that "they need to be given a mask on the spot and sent home."

"You cannot have people in your workplace who are symptomatic," Michelson added. "Because what we are worried about is continuity of business. That involves knowing the outside U.S. travel plans of your employees, whether they're traveling for business or pleasure. If they've been in Yokohama, if they've been in those quarantine towns in Italy, if they've been any place in China, they can't come to the office for 14 days period."

But critically, all the advice given by experts has a timely caveat, as meaningful changes could come from the Center for Disease Control or Los Angeles Department of Health within days. "Recommendations we're giving now are different than they would have been 10 days ago. And I will expect the guidance to be very different again in a week to 10 days," Michelson said.

For now, corporations are taking precautions to promote cleanliness as much as possible. According to Michelson, "some companies are now having a chime go off every hour. And having everybody in the company sanitize their hands when they hear the chime because of how transmissible this virus is."

For Hollywood, asking about potential dietary supplements or IV treatments isn't off the table. "We do a lot of IV vitamin therapy in general per requests of patients and it does help strengthen or boost the immune system," Farzam said. "But it is not a cure for viruses or infections. Instead the best prevention for flu viruses is good hygiene, staying hydrated, and getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night."

Of the other "outrageous" requests that have come across Farzam's agenda — Farzam shared, "We've gotten everything from stockpiling on Tamiflu to oxygen tanks to HIV medications in the event that there was a severe outbreak that would not be able to be managed by the hospital system."

While the world waits for a vaccine, Hollywood has one easy way to prepare if and when it hits studio lots and film sets.

"Don't panic, but prepare. The same way we'd stock up with things for a possible earthquake, hurricane or natural disaster," Cohan said. "If authorities say that the coronavirus is out in the community and you need to stay at home, make sure you have enough food, water, medication."

While Hollywood is known for handshakes or hugs on red carpets, doctors advise to skip them. "That's a great way for someone to inadvertently transmit the disease," Michelson implored. "Also, do get a flu vaccine if you haven't because you're less likely to get the flu and, thereby, less likely to be in a doctor's office or hospital where there's a higher probability of people infected with COVID-19 will go."

Additionally, when it comes to touching hard surfaces with your hands, Michelson urges his clients to refrain from "railings in an arena. Tables in an airplane or a restaurant. The door push going into the restroom, the faucets in a public bathroom. The buttons in an elevator. Retrain yourself to have as minimal contact as possible with hand touch surfaces. Grab a paper towel, a tissue, the sleeve of your shirt. And if you have touched these surfaces, use hand sanitizer and take 60 seconds to rub it in."

As a doctor who often makes house calls, Farzam is not fearful of continuing to treat patients with cold and flu symptoms. "I'm still seeing patients full-time, given that we are in prime cold and flu season. I have advised patients not to be alarmed with the hope and assumption that as the flu season dies down and the weather warms up in the next month or so, so do these viruses in general. Whatever outbreaks are peaking at this point should and will die down as the weather warms and as the flu season trends down."

Brenner agrees. "I think this will pass when flu season is over. It'll take a couple of months, but this will turn around. I'm confident. For now, we have to grin and bear it, stay very careful, and stay healthy."