Walking down the aisle of my local grocery store, I noticed that they were out of paper towels, masks, and antibacterial wipes. Just like with H1N1, SARS and MERS, the panic has started. Is there really a reason to be frightened here in the U.S. or is this all hype? Here’s the real talk.
Coronavirus is Sars-CoV-2 and the disease is called “coronavirus disease 2019,” COVID-19 for short. It was first reported in China, but to current date has been found in 80 different countries. In the U.S., there are more than 100 cases in 15 states (ed. note: as of March 4). The World Health Organization announced that more than 90,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with the disease.
Symptoms are similar to those of the common cold or flu, which include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, and muscle aches. It is usually not associated with sore throat and runny nose as it is more commonly a lower respiratory disease. Because the ability to fight infection is more suppressed in the elderly and those with chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, they are most at risk. It’s important to note a person can shed the virus even without symptoms, so hand washing around older adults and the immunosuppressed is essential.
The virus spreads via respiratory droplets, no different than the common cold. A sneeze, for example, can travel from 3 to 6 feet from a source. Practice good cough hygiene by coughing or sneezing into your flexed elbow as opposed to your hands and avoid touching your mouth and nose. Though studies on COVID-19 are still pending, similar viruses have lived on inanimate surfaces for up to 9 days at room temperature. The good news is the virus can be killed immediately with disinfectant. So regularly disinfecting your counter tops, office desks, airplane tray tables and other furniture can protect you.
So far, there are no medications or vaccines publicly available to cure or prevent this virus.Supportive care is the only treatment, similar to most respiratory viral infections. Those who have died from the virus have been older or immunocompromised individuals. Most die from worsening respiratory distress such as pneumonia.
The best way to prevent getting the virus is by handwashing with soap and water, disinfecting surfaces, and staying at least 3 feet away from anyone with respiratory symptoms. COVID-19 has an incubation period of up to 14 days; if you have been exposed and have no symptoms by day 14, there is no need for further quarantine.
Here are some questions I’ve been asked in my clinic:
Should I cancel my travel plans? Unless you plan to travel to China, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy Japan and South Korea, you may not have to cancel your travel plans. If you do decide to travel to a country on the CDC travel advisory list, know that you may be quarantined upon return. If you choose to cancel your trip, most airline carriers will waive fees for people who wish to change certain flights. My advice: Try to buy refundable tickets/hotels when planning an upcoming international trip. Also, verify if the country you are traveling to has adequate facilities to treat you if you were to get sick. You don’t want to be in a place where you are unable to receive treatment due to strained resources. I advise consulting the CDC travel advisory site before planning travel.
Should I wear a mask? There is no evidence, if you are a healthy person, that wearing a mask will protect you. People who wear masks can increase risk by touching their face more often. Remember, COVID-19 is transmitted through droplets not air. Standard masks are designed to keep droplets in, not to keep them out. Masks are intended to be worn by a person who is sick to prevent spreading it to others. If you have no symptoms, unless your mask is a medical respirator, it is unlikely to help you.
What about my kids? Very few children have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Kids who have get mild symptoms. So far, no child has died from COVID-19. This could be becausechildren have antibodies in their blood stream from frequent exposure to other Coronaviruses, such as the common cold. Kids may not get sick, but as carriers, they can spread the virus to elder adults.
Coronavirus will continue to spread across the world. We need to prevent the spread of the disease to the most vulnerable: the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. The old doctor’s tricks work best; wash with soap and water, practice coughing and sneezing hygiene, and avoid areas of high exposure by following travel advisories. The world has seen other viruses with much higher fatality rates in the past, but COVID-19 is new. The more we learn about it, the better the world will be prepared to handle it. In the meantime, be cautious, wash your hands and travel wisely.
For more information on the Coronavirus please visit the CDC website.