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The New Coronavirus: In the US and Abroad

Emily Black | JAN 28, 2020

**Updated as of Jan 28, 2020 - 9:29AM PST**

As you may well be aware, there is a novel (new) virus that originated in Wuhan, China that started late last month, and has spread to several countries, including the United States.  Is it time to panic?  Experts are saying no.  So first, take a deep breath, and we'll walk through the facts as explained by scientists, and the simple precautions you can take to keep your family healthy. 

First off, this never-before-seen strain of pneumonia is a Coronavirus, which means while it is, admittedly, related to the same family of viruses as SARS and MERS, it is also the same set of viruses connected to the common cold.  Largely this is a catch all term for viruses that can spread via mammals (including humans) and birds.  In humans, this typically manifests in upper respiratory infections, like pneumonia or bronchitis, caused either by the virus itself, or as a secondary symptom.  In other mammals, it typically causes digestive issues like diarrhea.  With domestic birds, similarly to humans, it causes respiratory issues.


The good news:  Experts state that this new strain, being called 2019-nCOV for the time being, has yet to prove to be any more virulent or deadly than any new influenza strain — like we see each winter here in the US.  Most healthy adults, even if they contract the disease, will have cold like symptoms.  Many may catch it and not even be aware, as their immune system gets to work at fighting 2019-nCOV off.  The vast majority of confirmed 2019-nCOV cases report fever, cough, and sometimes a shortness of breath.  In some cases there are also non-respiratory symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea.    

Another good sign is that as scary as hearing all about a frightening new outbreak may be, this time around information has spread faster than the disease itself.  Unlike in the case of the 2003 SARS epidemic, Chinese officials quickly warned other countries, and shared their knowledge of the new 2019-nCOV as soon as they discovered what it was.  Within 24 hours of receiving genetic information about the virus, the CDC was able to create a diagnostic test for 2019-nCOV so that new suspected cases could be confirmed or cleared.  As of the writing of this article, the World Health Organization ( WHO) has not categorized 2019-nCOV as a global health emergency. 

The less good news:  The flip side to the "most cases present as a mild flu or cold" positive viewpoint is that with such common, nebulous, and relatively minor symptoms in most victims, people may be carrying the virus and be unaware that they are possibly infecting others. 

2019-nCOV has spread beyond China to a handful of other countries, and the US is one of them.  Since symptoms are often mild and mimic the flu, folks might be unaware they've been exposed and inadvertently expose others who might be at greater risk for more serious symptoms.  Currently there are 5 confirmed cases here in the US, and the CDC is monitoring around 100 other individuals who came forward to be tested, and thus far around 30 of those have been cleared to not be carrying the virus.  Those confirmed cases are in Southern California, Chicago, Arizona and Washington state.  The patients who have the virus here in the US are all in otherwise stable condition thus far, and those who have remained hospitalized or quarantined are being held to halt further spread of the disease.

Unfortunately, however, thousands of confirmed cases have quickly spread throughout China, and as of this writing, there have been 106  reported deaths.  Infections also have been confirmed in 18 other countries thus far including France, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Canada, Australia, and Sri Lanka.  No deaths have been reported outside mainland China.

  

What that means:  Scientists and officials are working on the 2019-nCOV outbreak from several angles to prevent further loss of life. 

One - To learn how successfully the virus spreads from animals to humans (called a zoonotic disease), compared to other zoonotic diseases such as Rabies or West Nile. 

Two - How successfully it transmits from one infected human to another.  Does it require direct person-to-person contact such as touch, sexual contact, or droplet spray (think: sneezing near someone)?  Or can it survive long enough to be passed via indirect contact (like how some germs can remain on doorknobs, can incubate in food or water, or can be an airborne virus)?  The CDC and WHO have scientists working to answer these questions about 2019-nCOV.  

Three - To contain and eventually stop the spread of the disease.  The CDC in conjunction with officials from China and other affected countries have issued travel warnings for those who are flying into or out of China.  As of this writing, 15 cities in the vicinity of Wuhan are currently under a travel ban, and those who are returning to the US after traveling to Wuhan are being screened at one of 20 major airports throughout the States.  

Major public spaces such as sports arenas, public libraries, and museums are all currently closed in Hong Kong, and major sporting events and concerts have been postponed or canceled throughout Wuhan and other major cities to minimize exposure to large groups of people.   

 

This sounds scary.  What should we do?:  If you're here in the States, the odds are relatively low that you will be exposed unless you, or someone you know and have been in contact with, have traveled to or from Wuhan, China within the last few weeks.  Barring that, the CDC suggests doing what we do each time there's a terrible flu or stomach bug going around, with a few added precautions for travelers and those who work with kids and the elderly.

  • Wash those hands - often and  the right way!  
  • Try to avoid touching your nose or mouth and carry hand sanitizer gel or spray to kill germs on the go.  Remember,  sanitizer kills germs but is not a substitute for proper and regular hand washing.
  • Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough (do the Dracula!).  Then wash your hands ASAP.  
  • Take extra care with your daily routine and health — keep your (and your family's) immune systems strong by getting enough sleep and healthy meals.
  • Teach your little ones not to put their hands or toys in their mouths.
  • If you feel sick, do not go to work.  If your children are under the weather, do not send them to school.
  • Get yourself a mask to block out germs while you breathe.  These are especially handy in crowded conditions like public transit, elevators, lobbies and waiting rooms.  You can get reusable respirator types or one-use  disposable ones.  Learn how to properly put them on and take them off so they work most effectively.  Here's a fantastic look at how and where masks protect you (and when they don't) so you know what type(s) of masks are right for you.  Hint:  a mask is also a great barrier to remind kiddos to keep little fingers out of mouths and noses!
  • Be especially careful with your personal sanitation around the very young or very old as their immune systems are less hearty than in strong, working age adults.
  • If you work in a school, care home, or medical facility, ask your supervisors what they recommend for protecting yourselves and your charges. 
  • If you are caring for someone at home who is, or you yourself are  immunocompromised, call your doctor to ask what your (or your loved one's) risks are, and what extra precautions someone with your/their condition might want to take.
  • If you plan on traveling in the next 1-2 months, read the CDC's recommendations for travelers here.

An important note to remember is that while the spread of the virus seems to be rapidly picking up speed, one reason we see large jumps in confirmed infectious cases early in an outbreak is because the scientific community has rushed to create tests to check for the particular strain.  This means that while it is alarming to see infection numbers jump from one day to the next, it is possible those cases existed before there was a test created to identify the virus, and now that one has been, more cases can be positively identified.

The best treatment is prevention — and prevention starts with each of us.  The information might be changing rapidly, and a lot of what we are hearing might sound scary.  Take heart in knowing that being better informed means being better armed, so the more scientists and medical experts know, the better for us all.  Ensure you are getting your 2019-nCOV updates from reliable sources like the CDC, WHO, or another trusted site, not just from Facebook posts or retweets.  Take some time to explain the facts to younger family members who might be scared about what they hear from their data-classmates or friends online.  And lastly, be sure while you're caring for those around you, to care for yourself as well. 

Stay healthy, happy, and safe dear Redfora readers.