As an epidemiologist interested in how coronavirus is becoming a pandemic, I would like to share a summary of facts as well as some advice to help mitigate a community-wide epidemic.
COVID-19, named by the World Health Organization, refers to a family of viruses that aggressively attack the immune system. Depending on how strong your immune system is just before exposure, your symptoms can range from difficulty breathing, fever, cold and cough to pneumonia or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which causes severe damage to the lungs and other organs.
To provide some perspective, the flu results in death for 1% of people who get it, while coronavirus currently is estimated at a mortality rate of 2%. What makes this virus a global emergency is how quickly it is spreading, due to poor containment and a long incubation period (the number of days you are contagious before you really know it) of 14 to as many as 27 days.
Below are some facts, based on information reported by the Centers for Disease Control, found here: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
How Does it Spread?
Like all respiratory viruses, coronavirus is spread by droplets in the air that are released during a cough or sneeze. Any surface can become contaminated, including another person’s body, clothing or even shoes.
If you are exposed to the droplet and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, the virus can be transferred into your system and make you sick. When the virus gets into the lungs, it begins to destroy the tiny air sacs that carry oxygen, called alveoli.
This causes the lungs to stiffen, requiring the heart to work harder and harder to get oxygen through the body. As lung function is lost, it becomes harder and harder for the rest of your organs to work efficiently. This can lead to organ failure and death.
How Can I Reduce Risk?
Masks: Common hospital masks found in waiting rooms do not prevent transmission of coronavirus. What is more likely to happen is that you or your child will be touching your face all the time to adjust the uncomfortable mask, and eventually you will touch your mouth, eyes or nose and get the virus anyway.
The only type of mask that may decrease transmission is called an N95 Respirator mask, which you already may have purchased during the fires. If you do get sick, wear this mask and make sure it is properly fitted and tightened. Even if you are quarantined, this mask will help reduce risk of exposure to those around you and help prevent the droplets in your cough and sneezes from spreading.
Wash hands for 20 seconds; take off shoes at the door and wash hands immediately after taking off shoes. Antibacterial soaps can cause bacteria-resistance, so just use basic soap and water.
Make sure to wash lunchboxes and especially water bottles, and no sharing of glasses among family members or friends. Teach family members to cough or sneeze into the elbow, instead of the hands, and wash hands immediately afterward to prevent spreading of the droplets.
Who is at Risk?
Although the first cluster (group of people who were exposed) was found in China, there is no inherent risk for developing coronavirus in the Asian population. The virus is not more common in men or women.
Those at risk are children (because they still have underdeveloped immune systems and haven’t learned good hygiene habits yet), older people, people with underlying chronic illness such as asthma, diabetics and people with high blood pressure, and those who are already immune-compromised, such as cancer patients. Health care workers are also at risk, due to more frequent exposure to people who are ill.
What do I do if I begin to Have These Symptoms?
First, this is a virus, so antibiotics and Tamiflu-like anti-viral therapy will not work. The best thing to do is immediately quarantine yourself or your family member and seek medical care. This includes being isolated from pets.
Thus far, there have been no reports of human to animal transmission of coronavirus, but little is still known about this virus, so it’s better to be overly cautious.
Let the doctor’s office know about your symptoms before you go in to protect others in the waiting room. Do not leave the house and do not expose yourself to others. Drink plenty of liquids and get lots of rest.
The greatest risk to our community is being exposed to people who become sick but do not stay home from work or school. The most likely scenario is that schools, offices and grocery stores will shut down for a period of time if people in the community are diagnosed with coronavirus.
The best thing to do is become aware of people around you who are coughing or sneezing, and make sure you wash your hands or use antibacterial gel if you are not home. You might also want to buy staples of food in case there is a town-wide quarantine. Stock up on Tylenol, make sure your nebulizer is working if you have one and make sure you get your prescriptions filled.
Lastly, don’t worry. If you or a family member does get coronavirus, it will most likely feel like a bad flu and after a few weeks, it will be over. Be cautious, but not paranoid and if you feel sick, just stay home!
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