About a month ago, the expert opinion was that Americans essentially had nothing to worry about with the new coronavirus, since named COVID-19. That’s changed. They weren’t necessarily wrong — for the last 30 days, it would have been a waste of energy to be anxious about it. But global health officials are now saying we need to actually consider the possibility of it becoming a widespread issue in the U.S.
This still doesn’t mean you need to fear for your life. It does, however, mean you should prepare yourself for the chance that your daily life could be significantly disrupted for a brief period of time. But as James Cherry, a distinguished research professor specializing in infectious diseases and pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says, there’s no need to prepare too much.
So, ah… what is even going on with coronavirus right now? Are we all gonna die, or…?
For a while, the majority of new COVID-19 cases were occurring only in China. But recently, with a few blundered cases in Italy and South Korea, the majority of new cases are now showing up outside of China. Right now, there are 60 confirmed cases in the U.S. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website states, “The potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, both globally and to the United States,” however, “for the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”
Basically, the CDC is reiterating that there’s still no reason to worry, but that the chance that you might need to worry more in the future has increased. COVID-19 meets two out of three criteria for a pandemic at present: It can be transmitted person-to-person, and it can kill. The third criteria that it doesn’t yet meet is a global presence, as there are still many countries with no cases. That said, the CDC predicts it will, indeed, become a pandemic.
We’ve learned a lot more about the virus in recent weeks — like the fact that it can be spread person-to-person and through virus germs on surfaces — but we still don’t have any type of cure or vaccine. And because of how messed up our pharmaceutical system is, if a vaccine is developed, there’s a solid chance many people won’t even be able to afford it anyway.
Wonderful. So I am gonna die from COVID-19?
Are you someone at risk for complications from the flu? If not, you’d most likely be fine if you had the coronavirus. The demographics of those at risk of dying from the flu and dying of COVID-19 are similar, impacting primarily the elderly with pre-existing conditions. (The majority of people who have become sick didn’t require hospitalization to survive.) “Older people with disabilities have a risk of severe illness and dying,” says Cherry. The rest of the population can go through this without any difficulty whatsoever. As far as children, there’s evidence that they’re going to do fine.”
Because the disease is still little understood, there could be many people who have become sick with such mild symptoms that they haven’t even realized they’re ill with COVID-19. “There are likely a lot of infections that are so mild that they don’t get recognized,” Cherry explains. “In fact, they may be asymptomatic. Yet, even the mild ones can spread it.”
This is part of why the coronavirus is being treated so seriously — it could be spreading without anyone realizing.
Is there anything I can do to prepare?
Not really. Face masks are only necessary when in direct contact with a sick person, or when you’re the sick person. And if you’re going to wear one, you have to be absolutely militant about it in order for it to be effective. Other than that, you should just be following the general rules of hygiene you would otherwise — e.g., wash your hands a lot.
At this point, the CDC is on top of things, and stressing about it is probably a bigger risk to your health than anything else. “The CDC has really done a good job with the various quarantine measures, they’ve been quite successful,” says Cherry. “Nevertheless, there are going to be people coming from various places who will likely have no symptoms on their flight here, who then could develop it and spread it before it’s recognized.”
The real concern, then, is that these people could infect those who might already be susceptible to complications from the flu. It’s a bit scarier in that we have vaccines and treatments for the flu, but don’t yet for the coronavirus. Still, Cherry says the flu should continue to be of greater concern for most of us.
“All evidence right now would say that the flu, even if COVID-19 became widespread, would be worse,” he says. “We had 34,000 deaths in this country last year, and 10,000 this year so far. The approach should in some ways be the same –– people need to wash their hands and be careful about things. But at the present time, I don’t think there’s any need to alter your normal procedures.”
But didn’t you say my daily life could be significantly disrupted?
Cities like Wuhan in China and some smaller towns in Italy with uncontrolled cases of the virus have been placed on widespread quarantine, preventing people from exiting or entering the city while essentially shutting everything down. The possibility exists that this could happen in the U.S., but Cherry says it’s unlikely. Currently, several hundred people who recently travelled to China are under voluntary quarantine in U.S. cities including Boston and New York City — only one of them, a student who visited Wuhan last month, has been confirmed with the virus — but there are no large-scale quarantines in place just yet.
A more likely scenario is that you could get sick and miss work for a few days. Or maybe your child or partner could get sick, and you might need to skip work to take care of them. Again, if you’re not worried about the flu, you probably don’t need to be worried about this virus, either. The CDC still isn’t anticipating that many Americans will be impacted, but if they are, we’ll likely all handle it the way we would any bad cold. Because once more, most people seem to be doing fine with some Tylenol, cough syrup and rest.
In any case, if you’re feeling even a little under the weather, tell your boss that the World Health Organization told you to stay home.