You cannot turn on the TV or scroll through social media these days without seeing something about the novel Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Everyone, including scientists, has a lot of questions about this virus, so here is what we know right now (this article was originally published on February 29, 2020, so information will likely change on a daily basis):
What is a Coronavirus?
Human Coronaviruses as a whole are by no means new. In fact, most people have likely had coronavirus at some point in their life; as these viruses typically cause mild respiratory illnesses like the common cold. So, what is the difference with COVID-19? It appears that this particular coronavirus likely started in bats. In the past, the coronaviruses that have originated in animals and then spread to humans have caused more significant illnesses. The two prior coronaviruses to start in this particular manner were SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), which surfaced in 2012. The COVID-19 virus is “novel” meaning that until December 2019, this strain had not been identified in humans.
What do we know about COVID-19 so far?
Scientists at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), at the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as numerous labs around the world, are feverishly working to try and learn as much as possible about this particular strain of coronavirus. Right now, much of what is speculated about COVID-19 is based on what we know about other coronavirus strains. It is likely that this virus is spread from person to person, but how easily it spreads is still not known. It appears that some people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have had no to very mild symptoms of the illness. However, there have also been cases of more severe illnesses and death from COVID-19 especially coming out of China where this particular strain of virus seems to have originated. As of February 29, 2020, there have been 79,394 cases reported in China and 6,009 cases in 53 countries outside of China. Currently, there have been just over 2,900 deaths reported from COVID-19 with over 96% of these deaths occurring in China. It seems that the younger populations like children have been less severely affected by this particular strain of coronavirus.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Reported symptoms include fever, cough, body aches, sore throat, headache, and diarrhea. The WHO has estimated that 1 in 6 people with COVID-19 will experience a more severe illness, which may include shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Now, those milder symptoms could also describe this year’s influenza illness or even just the common cold. Take away message here…not every cough, fever or body ache is COVID-19 (in fact, you are more likely to have influenza or another common cold virus than COVID-19 at this point). However, if you have fever, cough and any difficulty breathing, you need to call your medical provider immediately for guidance on where to be evaluated.
Ok, so the symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to other cold/flu symptoms, so who really needs to be concerned?
For those that have traveled to countries with large COVID-19 outbreaks or have had direct contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, should be more concerned about the illness. As of this time, countries with large outbreaks include China, Japan, Iran, Italy, and South Korea, and there are now actually travel restrictions in place to many of these countries. I can guarantee that this list of countries is going to increase in the coming days to weeks.
Is there a test for COVID-19?
The short answer is “yes” but the test is not readily available at this time. It appears that the CDC is working to get testing kits to all state health department labs, but this is not like testing for the flu or for strep. Please, please, please, at this time do not go to the doctor’s office or the emergency room just to be tested for COVID-19! If you have severe COVID-19 symptoms or any symptoms AND have traveled to a country with widespread COVID-19, or you have had direct contact with someone with COVID-19, call your doctor’s office for further guidance.
What is the current situation with COVID-19 here in the US?
As of February 29, 2020, there have been 22 confirmed cases of COVID-19 that were tested and identified here in the US (this does not include cases that were diagnosed in people brought back to the US by State Department charter planes or from the Diamond Princess cruise ship). Initial cases here in the US were identified in those with recent travel to places with COVID-19 outbreaks or in those that were in close contact with those diagnosed with COVID-19. However, this week, several cases have been identified in people with no travel or contact with those that have been ill. The first death in the US from COVID-19 occurred on February 28, 2020, in Washington. At this time, no cases have been identified in Louisiana.
Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?
No vaccine is currently available at this time because this is a “new” strain of coronavirus. While scientists have already been able to unpack this virus genome or structure, it takes time to develop a vaccine. In general, vaccines can take anywhere from 6-18 months to be developed and go through the testing and approval process. It would be very unlikely to see a vaccine developed for COVID-19 anytime within the near future.
So what should we do right now to prepare?
- Do not panic! While we are still learning about COVID-19, it is important to put this virus into perspective. Consider the influenza season, so far this year…as of February 22, 2020, the CDC estimates that there have been over 32 million flu cases and over 18,000 people have died from the flu including 125 children. Influenza infects millions of people each and every year and kills otherwise healthy children and adults as well. At this time, I am still far more concerned with the flu than I am with COVID-19. Yes, COVID-19 is going to spread, but so will the flu.
- WASH YOUR HANDS! I cannot stress enough how important good hand hygiene is to reduce the spread of all viruses. Wash your hands frequently and for longer than you think (at least 20 seconds).
- Do not go to school/work/church/public places if you have a fever or feel ill! Please, I beg of you parents, if your child has a temperature of 100.4°F or higher, do not give them medicine to treat the fever, and then send them on their way to daycare or school. A good rule of thumb is that you need to be fever-free for 24-hours (without using fever-reducing medications) before going back to school/daycare/work.
- At this time, there is no recommendation from the CDC or the WHO that healthy individuals should be wearing a face mask. In fact, if you attempt to put on a face mask, but do not do it correctly, you will actually be touching your face even more germs which can increase your chance of exposure to germs on your hands. If an individual is already ill with respiratory symptoms, a mask can be helpful to prevent them from spreading the germs to others. For healthcare providers, a very specific mask called an N95 mask is actually recommended. If you are going to stock up on anything, hand soap or hand sanitizer for those times when hand washing is not possible is the way to go.
- Make sure you are using reliable sources for your information about COVID-19 (see below for links). As I stated previously, the situation with COVID-19 is changing on a daily, and sometimes even hourly, basis. I have seen many news headlines or social media posts that are being put out there simply to cause fear and increase panic. This virus is going to spread and it is likely that it will reach pandemic levels, but we can each do our part to try and reduce the spread of germs (did I mention washing your hands?).