It Started in China and It’s Spreading. How Bad Will It Get?
About 20 years ago the SARS epidemic caused panic and quarantines as the world braced for a global pandemic. Fortunately, that never happened. But something new has just emerged, and its origins are the same as SARS: China.
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This time it’s being referred to as the “Coronavirus.” That’s a curious designation because SARS was also a coronavirus. And according to the former head of the CDC, it is even more infectious than SARS.
What is Coronavirus?
In actual fact, coronavirus is not a specific type of virus but rather a broad category of viral infections that are typically not dangerous. The common cold is designated as a coronavirus. However, people with compromised immune systems can develop a serious case. There are also coronavirus variants that are quite serious.
One serious coronavirus variant is MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Like the SARS variant, MERS presents acute symptoms severely affecting the respiratory system.
How Dangerous is This Particular Coronavirus?
The current designation given by the CDC to this latest coronavirus is “2019-nCoV.” The “nCoV” stands for “novel coronavirus” and the date is what is being used to isolate its designation.
It has already spread to 16 countries including the United States and 4 states have reported cases with a total of 26 states currently investigating possible causes. Its current danger is still under assessment, but as of January 28th, over 100 deaths have been reported.
How Widely Has It Spread?
The following countries have reported confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV as of January 27, 2020:
- Hong Kong
- The Republic of Korea
- United States
There are also People Under Investigation (PUI) in the United States.
As of 1/27/2020, the following results have been reported:
What Are the Symptoms of 2019-nCoV Coronavirus?
According to the CDC “for confirmed 2019-nCoV infections, reported illnesses have ranged from infected people with little to no symptoms to people being severely ill and dying.
Symptoms can include:
- Shortness of breath
CDC believes at this time that symptoms of 2019-nCoV may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 after exposure. This is based on what has been seen previously as the incubation period of MERS viruses.
The latest situation summary updates are available on CDC’s web page 2019 Novel Coronavirus, Wuhan, China.”
What Can You Do to Prevent Exposure, Transmission, and Infection?
At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people. Chinese officials report that sustained person-to-person spread in the community is occurring in China. Person-to-person spread in the United States has not yet been detected, but it’s likely to occur to some extent. Cases in healthcare settings like hospitals may also occur.
When person-to-person spread occurred with MERS and SARS, it is thought to have happened mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughed or sneezed, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. Spread of SARS and MERS between people has generally occurred between close contacts.
It’s important to note that how easily a virus spreads person-to-person can vary. Some viruses are highly contagious (like measles), while other viruses are less so. It’s important to know this in order to better understand the risk associated with this virus.
While the CDC considers this is a very serious public health threat, based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent 2019-nCoV infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. Precautionary steps recommended by the CDC include:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
Many people choose to wear surgical masks to prevent inhalation of airborne viruses. They’re inexpensive and can be purchased at any pharmacy. However, you have to ask yourself what protection a mask offers your eyes.
The CDC is clear that you should avoid touching your eyes because they’re mucous membranes that can transmit disease. If a virus is airborne as an aerosol or droplet, what’s to stop it from drifting into our eyes?
The CDC has 3 levels of caution for a disease outbreak: WATCH, ALERT, and WARNING. Currently, the 2019-nCoV virus has resulted in the highest level of caution at a level 3 warning. Here are the details from the CDC:
- CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.
- There is an ongoing outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that can be spread from person to person.
- Chinese officials have closed transport within and out of Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, including buses, subways, trains, and the international airport. Other locations may be affected.
- Older adults and people with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk for severe disease.
- The situation is evolving.
There is no specific antiviral treatment recommended for 2019-nCoV infection. People infected with 2019-nCoV should receive supportive care to help relieve symptoms. For severe cases, treatment should include care to support vital organ functions.
People who think they may have been exposed to 2019-nCoV should contact your healthcare provider immediately.
What Can or Should You Do?
Pay attention. Newscasts, the Internet, and local newspapers will no doubt provide timely alerts and updates for any cases or precautions necessary for your area. The CDC has an FAQ on their website with info as well. If you live in a state that has reported cases, you might consider stocking up on the following:
- Surgical masks
- Protective eyewear
- Hand sanitizers for home and to carry with you
- Surgical gloves if the outbreak shows up in your immediate area and you need to go out
These items are simply to prevent contact with a virus. If the outbreak is present in your area, you should limit travel as much as possible and follow any guidelines recommended by your local emergency management agency or organization.
Of course, these suggestions are pretty commonsense. If you want to be truly prepared, I recommend reading the following articles:
- 25 Supplies You’ll Need to Survive the Next Pandemic
- 27 Hygiene Products You’ll Need After The SHTF
- How To Set Up A Medical Quarantine In Your Home
A Little Perspective
I was living and working in Hong Kong at the height of the SARS epidemic. I was there with 5 other American businessmen on an extended project. We were staying at the J.W. Marriott hotel and usually commuted on the subway every morning and night to the office.
Something Seemed Different
We had all adjusted to the life and lifestyle of Hong Kong. The sidewalks were always filled with people and the streets were a perpetual traffic jam of cars, trucks, buses, and taxis although no one ever blared their horn. That would be impolite. We were used to the crowds and took them in stride until one day, we noticed something.
There weren’t as many people on the streets and the traffic was actually moving. We had heard nothing on local TV but then we heard a report on CNN in our hotel rooms. There was an epidemic in China called SARS and it had spread to Hong Kong.
Then we started to get calls from our colleagues and family members back in the states. We were in the middle of a growing pandemic and didn’t even know it. China had withheld the information as they seem to have done with this latest outbreak, but Hong Kong was much more transparent about what was going on.
We were nearing completion on the project and decided to stick it out. We would soon change our minds.
The Subway Petri Dish
Our commute from the hotel to the office was usually on the Hong Kong subway system. It’s called the Octopus in Hong Kong and everyone had an Octopus card to get to just about everywhere. It was way better and faster than any taxi and a lot cheaper too.
But there was a problem. Unlike American and European trains which have enclosed cars, all of the cars connected on Hong Kong subway trains are open from end to end. As the train travels you can feel a draft of air from the car in the front all the way through up to 20 or 30 cars to the back.
It occurred to me that one sneeze or cough from an infected person in the front could travel the entire length of the train. That day was our last day in Hong Kong. We flew out the next day and were glad to be home. And then I got some real perspective.
A Rude Awakening
After returning to my home state of Illinois, I was relieved to be away from a place plagued by a pandemic. Ultimately, it was confirmed that 800 cases of SARS were reported and 34 deaths as a result of that initial outbreak in China in 2002.
And then one day, I came across an article about West Nile virus in Illinois. In 2002, the state of Illinois reported more than 800 human cases and 62 deaths as a result of the West Nile Virus. I was stunned. I was safer in Hong Kong at the height of the SARS epidemic than I was in my own backyard.
The Moral of the Story
The 2019-nCoV coronavirus is something to take seriously. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open for the latest reports and take precautions if you feel the need or local authorities make that recommendation.
But don’t panic. We live in a world of constant viral infection and with due diligence, we should get through this next round just fine. I survived SARS. And come to think of it, I survived West Nile Virus too.
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