As reports detailing the spread of novel coronavirus come out, the level of worry and fret, if not outright panic, is increasing around the world. The only way to combat panic is with facts, so here are five things you need to know about the novel coronavirus.
1. Where does the novel coronavirus come from?
Coronaviruses have been present in animals including dogs, cats, cattle, and wildlife for millions of years. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which caused global panic in 2002, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) are both caused by coronaviruses. The original hosts for both of these coronaviruses were probably bats.
The novel coronavirus, too, is thought to have been passed from animals. Many of the people who got infected worked or frequently shopped at the Huanan seafood wholesale market, in the center of the Chinese city of Wuhan. That market also sold live and newly slaughtered animals, which increased the risk.
2. What are the symptoms of novel coronavirus?
Essentially, it causes pneumonia. People who have gotten sick have reported suffering from coughs, fever, and breathing problems. Because it is a virus, antibiotics are useless against it. The antiviral drugs we have against seasonal flu do not work to treat the virus. People admitted to the hospital with the virus will get fluids and supportive care for their lungs and other organs. Of the 213 people who have died from virus thus far, most were already in poor health.
3. How fast is the virus spreading?
At this point it’s hard to tell because it is widely believed that estimates of people who are infected have been quite low. Scientists believe most people who get the novel coronavirus have mild symptoms or symptoms that replicate a cold or the flu, so they don’t seek medical attention.
China quickly took steps to lock down the city of Wuhan and several other nearby cities in order to prevent the spread of the virus. However, the virus has been confirmed in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, France, the U.S., and Vietnam.
On January 17, the Centers for Disease Control began screening travelers flying into U.S. airports from Wuhan for signs of infection, and as of January 29, the agency said it had identified 165 suspected cases across 36 states, including five confirmed cases and 68 negative ones. On January 27, the CDC issued a Level 3 travel alert, advising travelers to avoid “all nonessential travel” to China. Many other countries have restricted travel to China and urged people to avoid Hubei Province, where the virus originated.
On January 30, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, which alerts nations that novel coronavirus is a global health problem. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom. This could be a real problem in the U.S., where a staggering number of people either do not have health insurance, or if they do, their policy has a prohibitively high deductible, which could prevent sick people from seeking medical attention. Many people also have jobs where they feel they have to come to work sick because calling out due to illness can pose a risk of loss of employment, so that also increases the possibility of spread.
To keep up to date on the spread of the virus, use this realtime nCoV 2019 tracker from Johns Hopkins University.
4. How contagious is novel coronavirus?
It is a respiratory virus, so it can travel through the air in the droplets produced when sick people breath, talk, sneeze, or cough. These droplets fall to the ground within only a few feet, which makes it harder to get than diseases like measles, chickenpox, and tuberculosis, which can travel 100 feet through the air. It’s easier to catch than HIV or hepatitis, which is only spread through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids.
In the U.S., seasonal flu is a greater health risk. Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin told the Washington Post that the flu causes 30,000 to 40,000 deaths every year. “It is very unlikely that this will ever reach the level that we annually lose to flu,” he said.
5. How can you avoid getting the virus?
First of all, avoid non-essential travel to China until the novel coronavirus outbreak has been contained. Other than that, do the same as you’d do with any other virus: practice basic hygiene.
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice). Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
There’s no need for U.S. residents to wear masks at this time, except for health professionals who are coming into regular contact with coronavirus patients. If the need to wear masks in public does arise, common dust masks and surgical masks will not stop the spread of the virus. What you’ll need is an N95 mask, and if you get one, you need to make sure it fits properly or it’ll be useless.
Ultimately, the primary message about the coronavirus is, don’t panic! This isn’t The Stand, y’all. There are pretty regular multi-country outbreaks of viruses, and at this time the novel coronavirus seems to have a fairly low contagion and fatality rate. Just use common sense, and if you’ve got plans to travel to China, you might want to reschedule.