As China reports a surge in cases of the novel coronavirus, with more than 2,100 deaths, questions arise about the risks posed to people around the globe.
The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global health emergency for the disease, which it has named COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring the rapidly evolving outbreak that emerged in Wuhan City, China, late last year. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has activated the Community Health Emergency Coordination Center to support local and state response.
While health officials acknowledge the seriousness of the viral illness, they add that it does not currently pose a threat to ordinary Americans.
To shed light on the emerging situation, Russell Lampen, DO, division chief for infectious disease for Spectrum Health Medical Group, provided some perspective and practical information about the virus.
Q: What do we need to know about coronavirus in general?
Coronaviruses are viruses that are normally found in the community and typically cause mild respiratory illness. A common cold is often caused by a coronavirus.
In the emergency room, some of our routine testing for causes of viral infections includes testing for coronaviruses.
Q: How is a coronavirus transmitted?
These viruses spread from person to person. They typically spread with what we call droplet spread—through particles from droplets created when people sneeze.
People come into contact with the particles when a person sneezes or they come into contact with the environment where that person has been.
Typically, once those droplets dry, they become less effective.
It’s usually relatively close personal contact that results in these transmissions of the virus.
Q: What do we know about the Wuhan novel coronavirus recently named COVID-19?
This is a new virus that we have not seen, and it appears to be causing more severe disease than what we have typically seen with coronaviruses.
It’s difficult to know at this point how serious the outbreak will be.
If we look at the documented cases, it looks like the mortality rate could be about 2%-3%. But it’s still too early to really tell how significant the infections will become.
The majority of people who have died from this disease in China are older individuals with underlying lung disease.
Q: Who is at risk for this disease?
There are no known cases in Michigan. In the U.S., there are 15 cases reported. Nearly all cases of COVID-19 involve travelers to China.
Currently, you are considered to be at risk if you have traveled to China or been in contact with somebody who has traveled to China and has been sick.
This regards travel within the last 14 days. It is thought the incubation period is about two weeks.
Q: What symptoms are caused by this viral illness?
The symptoms we are worried about are lower respiratory symptoms: fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Q: What should you do if you worry you may have this novel coronavirus?
We recommend that you contact your primary care physician or reach out to Spectrum Health Now, a telehealth service that connects patients in Michigan with Spectrum Health providers via video 24/7.
Q: What steps have Spectrum Health taken in response to the outbreak in China?
Probably the biggest thing we have done is institute a screening process. All patient registration sites are taking a travel history from all patients, so we can recognize and find people who would be at risk of acquiring COVID-19.
We also have developed a process to safely isolate and treat patients who could be infected, while making sure nobody else in the hospital is exposed.
Q: Should we wear a mask when we travel?
That’s a personal decision. There has not been great evidence to show those masks prevent much in way of infection. They get wet. They don’t fit quite right.
Probably the best thing a mask does is it keeps people from putting their fingers in their eyes, nose and mouth.
You could put a handkerchief around your face and you might get the same benefit.
Q: How can we protect ourselves?
The best way to stay safe from coronavirus is to do the same things we should be doing to avoid catching routine influenza.
We should wash our hands frequently, avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth, and avoid being near people who are sick.
Stay at home if you are sick. If your kids are sick, with a fever and cough, keep them home from school. This can help prevent the spread of all respiratory viruses and the flu.