You’ve seen the headlines and heard the stories. There’s a new virus making its way around the world, threatening — and, by expert predictions, likely — to become a bonafide pandemic soon: coronavirus.
Officially named COVID-19 based on the type of virus it is, this novel (new) coronavirus disease is actually caused by the same family of viruses that causes SARS. Back in 2003, a SARS outbreak started in China and lasted until 2004. COVID-19 seems to spread faster than SARS, but it’s milder than that disease.
Because it’s new and health officials don’t know much about it, COVID-19 has captured media attention quickly and with potent force.
Almost as soon as news broke about the mysterious virus ravaging the Hubei province in China, conspiracy theorists concocted a story about the virus’s origins that created a collective panic about the possibility of a bioweapon. Let’s clear up one thing right now: COVID-19 is not a bioweapon.
How much should you worry about this new virus? Will it become a pandemic?
These and other questions don’t have easy answers. But you should know what’s going on because information is power.
If you read nothing else in this blog post, read this:
- Wash your hands thoroughly
- Stay home when you’re sick
- Call your doctor if you have a fever, cough or trouble breathing
- Cough and sneeze into the crook of your elbow
- Get your seasonal flu shot
These simple measures will go a long way towards preventing not just the spread of COVID-19 but of regular, seasonal viruses like the ones that cause the flu. In fact, seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people each year without so much as a raised eyebrow from most people. And we actually have a vaccine for it.
We’re still in the early stages of this novel coronavirus. And while the death toll continues to rise, it’s important to separate fact from fiction — especially since so little is known about the disease right now. We need to strike the balance between preparedness and paranoia (and err on the side of caution).
With that in mind, here’s what we know about COVID-19 as of today.
What is the new coronavirus?
Put simply, it’s a virus. The new coronavirus is considered “novel,” meaning it’s never been seen before in humans. Its name, COVID-19, stands for “CO-rona VI-rus Disease 2019.” The coronavirus family of viruses isn’t new. Coronavirus is responsible for a range of diseases, from mild cases like the common cold to more severe respiratory infections, in both animals and humans.
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we haven’t seen this kind of coronavirus before, though experts think it likely came from bats.
SARS, another coronavirus, is similar to COVID-19 in that it came from an animal and spread to humans. Most viruses don’t spread from animals to people, but some — like the ones that caused MERS and SARS and the one that’s causing the current COVID-19 outbreak — can.
Who’s at risk for getting sick?
As of right now, the chances of getting sick with COVID-19 in the United States are extremely low for most people. Because it’s not widespread in the U.S. at the moment, you likely won’t encounter it at all unless you:
- Live in one of the handful of states that have confirmed cases
- Have recently traveled to an affected area
- Have been in close, personal contact with someone who traveled to an affected area
- Work in a healthcare field in an area with confirmed cases
With a name like COVID-19, this novel coronavirus sounds like something out of a scifi movie, a deadly, unstoppable disease to rival pandemics of the past.
The truth is that health experts aren’t sure how deadly the disease is or what the risk factors for this specific virus are. If you look beyond the sensationalist headlines, you’ll see that most cases — just under 81% so far — are mild.
This is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, milder symptoms mean a better chance of getting better for the people who get infected. On the other, infected patients may not realize that they’re sick with anything other than a typical cold — which means they may be more likely to spread it around since they don’t take it as seriously.
Like all viruses, certain people, like the following, face higher risks if they get the disease:
- Older people (those over age 65)
- People with compromised immune systems
- People with existing chronic health conditions, like diabetes or heart disease
That’s not to say that a young, healthy person without any chronic health problems wouldn’t face complications from the new coronavirus. Viruses don’t discriminate.
But it’s more likely for someone who’s older or who already has a compromised immune system to suffer serious symptoms.
Interestingly, coronavirus does not seem to affect children as severely as it does adults (so far). The regular, seasonal flu that hits the U.S. each year poses more of a threat to children than coronavirus does. There’s also no data on how coronavirus affects pregnant women as of the time of this post. These two groups (children and pregnant women) tend to be at higher risks for other kinds of viruses.
How many cases of coronavirus are in the U.S. right now?
As of last week, there were a total of 43 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States across the following states: Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin.
The CDC includes both confirmed and “presumptive positive” cases in their total of 43. Presumptive positive cases are tests that came back positive at the state level but still need CDC confirmation, so they’re expected to be positive. Of the 43 total cases, 17 cases are travel-related and 26 are from person-to-person spread.
News broke on March 2 that there were more than 90 cases in the U.S. and as of yesterday, a total death count of 6 people. All 6 deaths happened in Washington state. According to CNN, confirmed cases in the U.S. originated from:
- An outbreak from the Diamond Princess cruise ship (45 people)
- People who got sick from another person (26 people)
- Traveling (17 people)
- People who repatriated from Wuhan, China (3 people)
(There is some lag time in reporting the total number of cases for official databases like the ones kept by the CDC.)
Washington state officials are concerned that the COVID-19 tally could be much higher since, as we mentioned earlier, people with mild symptoms may not realize they have the virus.
Worldwide, the coronavirus count is much higher, with 68 countries affected, a confirmed case count of over 90,000 people and a death toll of over 3,000.
On a more optimistic note, a little over half of the 90,000 confirmed cases worldwide have resolved, with 94% of the resolution being “recovered.” In short, a little under 46,000 people with this virus have already recovered from the disease.
And while a death rate of 1-2% (estimated) makes COVID-19 deadlier than seasonal flu (0.1%), it’s not as worrisome as seasonal flu in the U.S. at the moment given the large volume of deaths from a disease with a known vaccine.
How can I keep from getting sick or spreading the disease?
The new coronavirus is, at the end of the day, a virus. And because it’s a virus, keeping it contained to one area is simultaneously (and unfortunately) simple but virtually impossible. Viruses spread easily via water droplets from your nose and mouth: sneezing, coughing and saliva. That’s why it’s important to:
- Wash your hands often and well. The temperature doesn’t matter as much as the length and detail. Wash with regular soap for 20 seconds under running water and include the backs of your hands and under your fingernails.
- Dry your hands thoroughly with a paper towel. Hand dryers spread droplets, which may spread diseases. Use a towel instead, and toss when done.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Washing thoroughly does the trick, but if you can’t get to a sink, use a hand sanitizer with alcohol. Note: Soaps labeled “antibacterial” aren’t effective against viruses.
- Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. Use the crook of your elbow or a tissue, and toss the tissue after use.
- Stay home when you’re sick. You need the rest anyway, and staying home will keep others safe from your germs.
- Get your seasonal flu shot if you haven’t already. It’s still flu season. Flu kills thousands of people, especially those at higher risks, like children, the elderly and people with health problems. A flu shot won’t stop the coronavirus, but it can help fight the existing flu. Hospitals need to save resources for a potential pandemic. The more precautions people take to prevent regular flu, the more resources medical staff can use to ward off an outbreak of COVID-19.
If you know that someone’s sick, keep your distance. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a safe distance of about 3 feet. Droplets containing the virus spread fast and far, and you can’t always see them.
Give your doctor a call if you have a fever, cough and trouble breathing. These may not be related to coronavirus, but your doctor can tell you what to do next.
Per the WHO, local authorities and health agencies will have the most accurate information about coronavirus in your area. Want to know more? Stay up to date on the latest information about coronavirus by checking out the websites for the CDC and WHO.
And our last piece of advice? Don’t panic.
Prepare, get the facts and help others by sharing credible news stories and information directly from legitimate sources.