DUDLEY'S director of public health knows only too well how it feels to self-isolate to try to preserve life after surviving a battle with cancer - and she's urging everyone, particularly the most at risk from coronavirus, to follow the government's guidelines to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Debs Harkins, the borough's public health and well-being boss, is at the helm of co-ordinating efforts in Dudley to try to keep residents safe and well during the coronavirus outbreak - after surviving her own fight against a deadly condition four years ago.

The 52-year-old, who has spent a lifetime in public service, underwent chemotherapy followed by a successful stem cell transplant for acute myeloid leukaemia in 2016 and she said: "I'm really, really lucky to be here. I had a one in five chance of making it."

Had she not had such a successful outcome from treatment, or if she was still undergoing treatment currently, she would have been in the group of very high risk people being urged to self isolate during the coronavirus crisis.

But she added: "I’m in the normal high risk group in terms of COVID-19 – the same risk as people over 70 and those who have a long-term health problem such as those with respiratory conditions, heart disease and pregnant women."

While undergoing cancer treatment - Debs, who was born in Cumbria, had to live in isolation. She said: "I have a sense of what it’s like for people.

"When I was ill - having aggressive intense chemotherapy you have to be in isolation. Visitors have to stay away from you. It gives me some insight into what self isolation is like and ways we can cope with it.

"I had a routine every day. I didn’t sit in my pyjamas – I did working hours and wouldn’t let myself watch box sets until the evening.

"One thing that really helped was moving round – that makes you feel better, and I thought of something positive that had happened that day to try and make me keep positive. I tried not worry and do everything I could do such as drink lots of water, eat healthy.

"People can do jobs they’ve been meaning to do for a while."

She added: "I understand people are worried and anxious. I'm in the at risk group. I'm not worrying. I'm making sure I'm prepared and trying to adhere to government advice as much as possible.

"If people adhere to it – we’ll slow it down. It’s not going to be over and done with in a couple of weeks.

"There's information on Dudley Council's website details about how people can stay mentally healthy. If you’re not able to see family and friends get somebody to set you up with a mobile phone or social media."

She said the idea behind keeping people at home is to delay the spread of the virus "in the hope we can get a vaccine and to help the health service" and she added: "If we have a lot of very ill people needing hospital treatment services at the same time – if we slow it down – if people get it they’ve got a better chance of getting good health services."

She urged people to "start to prepare if you’re not self isolating - think about what you will need; make sure you’ve got a way of getting repeat prescriptions and food etc" and she continued: "We don't know how many people will get it. "The situation is changing so rapidly. It’s a new virus – we don’t know much about it.

"We’ve been asked to plan for about a fifth of the workforce to be off at any one time. More than a fifth of people will be affected at some point."

She described the situation as "unprecedented" but stressed public health officials, the council and Dudley CVS which is co-ordinating the borough's volunteer response were "working really hard to plan" - to make sure health services are working and that rough sleepers have somewhere to go if they need to self isolate.

Dudley social services have cancelled activities that bring groups of people together – such as day services and dementia gateways – but carers are continuing to visit people in their own homes.

Debs, who was involved in emergency planning for the swine flu outbreak in 2009, said: "The difference with this is it’s much faster. It was a slower burn. It was very serious but we probably had more time to prepare for it. This is so fast and changing rapidly. We had pandemic flu plans and I’m really pleased we tested them. The speed at which this is travelling is unprecedented."

She praised colleagues in the health service and local authority “working so hard in really difficult circumstances" and she said: "For the vast majority of people they’ll find they might have a bit of flu like symptoms or no symptoms. "Most people will only have mild effects. I think the people most worried will be those people in those vulnerable groups."

She said "the best thing those people can do is to protect themselves" by self-isolating or social distancing in line with government guidance.

"Self isolation is for people who have got symptoms of coronavirus so that they don't infect others. If you have a temperature and a new continuous cough you must self isolate. You must stay at home for seven days. If you live with other people they should stay at home for 14 days. If you get these symptoms and you live with someone 70 or over or with a long term health condition try and find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days to reduce the risk of passing it on to them. If you do have to stay at home with someone in these risk groups keep your distance, sleep in different beds, keep two metres or three steps away from other people in your home especially if people are vulnerable. Ask friends or family to deliver food shopping and medicines and leave them outside on the door step. It means staying alone, if possible, not having visitors - not leaving the home.

"Everybody else is being asked to do social distancing to try to slow the spread of the disease and protect vulnerable people from getting it - people like myself. People 70 and over or with long term conditions and pregnant women or those with weakened immune systems. Only travel on public transport if you need to, work from home, avoid social activities and large groups of people."