An illustration of the coronavirus is shown.
Learn what you need to know about the virus making headlines. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

With a surge in cases of COVID-19 and more than 41,000 deaths worldwide, questions arise about the risks posed to those within our communities.

The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global pandemic.

The WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to respond to the rapidly evolving outbreak that emerged in Wuhan City, China, late last year.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services activated the Community Health Emergency Coordination Center to support local and state response, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declared a state of emergency for the state of Michigan.

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.

This particular strain of coronavirus is new and not been seen before. Our bodies therefore do not have antibodies or immunity to this coronavirus, which means that the symptoms can become quite severe, and life threatening, in certain cases.

Q: How is 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. Experts have determined the novel coronavirus lives on cardboard for 24 hours, metal for two to three days, and plastic for three days in warm weather conditions.

It’s usually relatively close personal contact of 10 minutes or more that results in transmission of the virus.

Q: What do we know about COVID-19?

This is a new virus, 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 near Wuhan, it looks like the mortality rate could be about 2%-4%. But outside China, the mortality rate has proven to be much lower, at about 1%.

The majority of people who have died from this disease are older individuals with underlying health conditions. Still, young people and otherwise healthy middle-age people have become critically ill, and some have died from COVID-19 complications.

Q: Who is at risk for this disease?

Throughout the United States, there are more than 175,000 confirmed cases.

Initially, most cases of COVID-19 involved travelers to China or other affected countries such as South Korea, Iran, Italy or Japan.

Currently, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading within communities around the world, which is why shelter in place orders have been activated in many states. There is risk in going to the grocery store or elsewhere, as even people who may not appear to be sick may be spreading the virus.

It is thought the incubation period is about two weeks, although most people display symptoms about five to 10 days after they were exposed to the virus.

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.

Other symptoms people have with COVID-19 include loss of smell and taste, gastrointestinal issues, and head or body aches.

Roughly 80% of those who become infected with the coronavirus have mild to moderate symptoms that may be treated at home. Others may require supplemental oxygen or hospitalization as the virus attacks their lungs.

Q: What should you do if you worry you may have COVID-19?

We recommend that you contact your primary care physician, and treat mild symptoms at home with Tylenol, plenty of fluids and rest. Due to a lack of testing kits, those with mild symptoms are not being tested for COVID-19 at this time in the United States.

For those who develop a fever with cough or difficulty in breathing, we recommend you call the COVID-19 screening hotline.

As a service to our community, Spectrum Health is offering free screenings for COVID-19. If you are in the state of Michigan and experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, call the hotline number at 833.559.0659 or participate in a virtual chat screening at spectrumhealth.org/covid19.

If you have severe or life-threatening symptoms, please call 911 before going to the emergency department.

Q: What steps has Spectrum Health taken in response to the outbreak?

First, we instituted a screening process. All patient registration sites are taking a symptom history from all patients, so we can recognize and find people who would be at risk of 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. Additional spaces have been equipped to handle the expected surge of patients – such as triage tents outside emergency departments and transforming a Grand Valley State University building into an annex hospital.

Additionally, we have restricted patient visitors, are staffing a free community screening hotline 24/7, and canceled or postponed many public events and elective procedures. Most routine or non-urgent appointments are referred to virtual visit options.

We also are sharing resources and information for the community on spectrumhealth.org. We want to assure you that we are here to serve the needs of our communities.

Q: Should we wear a mask when we are outside the home?

That’s a personal decision. There has not been great evidence to show those masks prevent you from getting infected by the virus. They get wet. They don’t fit quite right.

They do help you from spreading your respiratory droplets with others. And probably the best thing a mask does, is it keeps people from putting their fingers in their eyes, nose and mouth.

However, key is to make sure front-line health care workers have access to the proper protective equipment so they can take care of our sickest community members.

People in the community could put a handkerchief around their face to provide the kind of barrier that would assist in preventing large respiratory droplets from infecting others, or to help collect large droplets from others on the outside of the material. Experts believe sewn fabric masks may be about 50% effective at reducing transmission of the virus.

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 (for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap), avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth, and avoid being near people who are sick.

Stay at home if you’re able. Abide by the shelter-in-place order in your state. If you are sick, self-quarantine for at least a week.