Coronavirus: Here’s What Experts Are Saying About the Global Health Threat

Since its discovery in Dec. 2019, a coronavirus (now named COVID-19) has been making headlines as it steadily spread from Wuhan, China, where it was first reported, to other countries around the globe. As of Feb. 13, there are more than 60,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and that number is expected to grow. The New York Times reports 15 cases of the virus in the United States and 395 confirmed cases globally outside of China, and the CDC has said that the virus presents a high potential public health threat to Americans. New cases are being confirmed every day.

China has seen a massive spike in deaths from the virus, with over 1,300 fatalities reported, according to the Times. In the U.S., there are confirmed COVID-19 (known by the CDC as 2019-nCoV) cases in six states—Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, and Wisconsin—with more people under quarantine. Fortunately, test results for most people under investigation are returning negative. Of those who had been infected with the virus, over 6,200 had recovered, according to a live map from Johns Hopkins. But don’t worry—just because you have coronavirus doesn’t mean you’ll die from it, especially if you act quickly. The recovery rate far surpasses the death rate.

If anything, most health experts are saying, you should be more worried about the flu, which the CDC says children under 4 years of age and adults age 65 and up are especially at risk for. The mortality is sitting just under the epidemic threshold currently, with at least 22 million flu illnesses, 210,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 deaths this flu season alone—far more deaths in the U.S. than there are even cases of coronavirus.

“It is…more of a concern now that we have had a few more pockets of person-to-person spread,” Ramzi Asfour, a California-based infectious disease expert, told Men’s Journal on Feb. 12. He noted that there have been no deaths in the U.S. Domestic travel shouldn’t be a concern, Asfour says, and you shouldn’t cancel any Europe travel plans for the spring, either, unless the situation worsens. He encourages people to research through the CDC and the WHO the latest travel advisories and restrictions and to always remain vigilant.

Here’s what you need to know about coronavirus, and how you can stay safe at home and abroad.

What Is Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are actually a whole class of viruses, and according to the CDC, they’re relatively common. In humans, they usually cause only mild to moderate upper respiratory symptoms in people—similar to what you’d get if you came down with a cold. In 2002 and 2012, two newer human coronaviruses, MERS and SARS, emerged, and they frequently caused more severe symptoms and often led to pneumonia and death.

COVID-19 symptoms have varied from person to person, with some reporting only mild effects while others have become severely ill and died. Generally, the virus causes a fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and rarely sniffles or sneezing, in the people it infects. Symptoms can appear as soon as two days after the initial exposure to the virus or as long as two weeks afterward.

Londoners visiting Westminster Abbey wearing face masks
Londoners visiting Westminster Abbey wearing face masks Peter MacDiarmid / Shutterstock

Where Has It Spread?

Although investigations into COVID-19 are still ongoing, it’s believed to spread like other coronaviruses: through droplets expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Since being identified in China at the end of 2019, the virus has spread across the globe. The most cases outside of mainland China can be found on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where 218 sick patients are being treated by Japanese health officials and the remaining 3,500-odd passengers and crew are quarantined until Feb. 19. Another cruise ship, from Holland America, has nearly 1,500 passengers and over 800 crew on board but no known cases of coronavirus. The ship was recently given the go-ahead to disembark in Cambodia.

“There hasn’t been sustained transmission outside of the cruise ship,” Asfour said, but he did cite an instance on Feb. 11 of two Japanese individuals in the same housing block falling ill from the virus, as well as the case of a British man who, while traveling from Singapore to France and then the U.K., infected at least nine people with coronavirus.

Around the globe, Singapore has 58 reported cases of COVID-19; Hong Kong has 53; Thailand has 33; South Korea and Japan have 28 (not including those on the cruise ship); Malaysia has 19; Taiwan has 18; Germany and Vietnam have 16; and Australia has 15. The full country-by-country stats can be found via Johns Hopkins.

But most of the cases are in China: over 59,800 people are confirmed to have coronavirus there, according to Johns Hopkins, though due to a shortage of test kits and a delayed response from the government, it’s unclear how many cases went unreported in the outbreak’s early days. In China, 1,367 have died from the disease. Outside of China, there has been one death in the Philippines, one in Japan, and one in Hong Kong.

What Are the Experts Doing to Prevent It?

Right now, officials are focused on containing the spread of the virus. For that reason, the CDC issued a Level 3 travel warning for China. It recommends people avoid “all non-essential travel” to the country. A proclamation from the White House, issued Jan. 31, barred most Chinese immigrants and nonimmigrants from entering the U.S. Many flights to mainland China and Hong Kong have been canceled through April.

Japan, Germany, and Vietnam have all reported person-to-person infections, and the World Health Organization updated its global risk assessment of the outbreak from “moderate” to “high.” Even so, the greatest risk of catching the virus comes from traveling to China, where most of the infected people are.

There are many myths spreading about the disease—about the effectiveness of antibiotics (none at all) and various home remedies (also not effective). For a full list of busted myths, check out the WHO’s website.

Despite the outbreak, some Chinese epidemiologists are optimistic about their chances of overcoming the virus. Zhong Nanshan, a senior government medical official, told Reuters that he believes the virus will plateau and decrease in severity, with the outbreak over by the end of April. At the WHO, officials are more cautious, warning nations to prepare themselves for a potential major health crisis and projecting that a vaccine won’t be ready for at least 18 months.

How Did the Virus Start?

How the disease became prevalent among humans is unknown. The virus began in bats, as coronaviruses are known to travel among birds and mammals, but there’s usually an intermediary animal—a vector the virus travels through on its way to humans. In 2002, SARS leaped from bats to civet cats to humans.

The Wuhan virus is thought to have crept into human populations via a seafood and wild animal market, where many of the first wave of infected Chinese people worked. “Bats are rare in markets in China, but hunted and sold directly to restaurants for food. The current most likely hypothesis is that an intermediary host animal has played a role in the transmission,” the WHO reported. A recent study, still being researched by the South China Agricultural University, suggests pangolins are the disease’s missing link between bats and humans.

In general, the WHO suggests to avoid unprotected interactions with farm and wild animals and to avoid pets if you’re sick, if only as a precaution. “At present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus,” the WHO said. “However, it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets.”

Remember, even if you get sick, it could take up to two weeks before you show symptoms. If you were in China in the past two weeks, it’s recommended that you monitor your health closely for symptoms and to let your doctor know immediately if any surface.

Passengers waiting at Hong Kong West Kowloon High-Speed Railway Station EyePress News/SIPA / Shutterstock

How to Stay Safe

To avoid the virus, the WHO and CDC recommend following the usual battery of prevention practices: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; and avoid close contact with sick people.

“Wash your hands. And don’t touch your face,” Asfour stressed. He also emphasized the value of maintaining personal health and a good immune system: “Adequate sleep has been shown to significantly reduce rates of acquisition of viral infections,” he said.

Also make sure you have adequate vitamin D and vitamin C levels, and eat a healthy, balanced diet. That will keep your immune system in top shape.

“Those things are extra important when there’s an outbreak,” Asfour said, “but they’re also just routine recommendations.”

If you’re feeling under the weather, cough and sneeze into a tissue, avoid close contact with others, and disinfect your surroundings to stop the spread of the virus. And most importantly, don’t ride the train, take a bus, go to the store, or go into the office.

What about the surgical masks people are wearing? They’re largely unnecessary, and the evidence on their effectiveness is “sketchy,” Asfour said. The masks are so thin and loose that they are hardly effective, and moreover, they need to be replaced every few hours, which most people don’t do. “Most people don’t wear them correctly,” Asfour said. “Outside of healthcare settings, they have not been shown to be helpful.”

If you need a mask, EcoWatch recommends a half mask, like one you would see at a construction site or in an aerosol factory. But try not to stock up. People rushing to buy them are causing a shortage for hospitals and clinics.

“Don’t panic and order a bunch on Amazon,” Asfour said, “because people who might actually need them will not be able to get them.”

Asfour explained that the utility of masks is for preventing sick people from spreading bacteria. If you’re already sick, wearing a surgical-style mask that covers your nose and mouth can help prevent you from spreading pathogens (this is standard practice for flu patients, he says). But there’s no reason for healthy people in the general population to wear them.

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