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 31,000 deaths worldwide, questions arise about the risks posed to people around the globe.

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.

In the emergency room, some of our routine testing for causes of viral infections includes testing for coronaviruses.

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.

It’s usually relatively close personal contact 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 it’s still too early to really tell, and outside China, the mortality rate has proven to be much lower.

The majority of people who have died from this disease are older individuals with underlying lung disease.

Q: Who is at risk for this disease?

Throughout the United States, there are more than 125,000 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, you are considered to be at greater risk if you have traveled to areas where there has been an outbreak, or been in contact with somebody who has traveled to an outbreak area, or been in contact with somebody who has been sick. It is spreading within communities, which is why shelter in place orders have been activated in many states.

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 COVID-19?

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 24/7.

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. Callers will be scheduled for a free screening through Spectrum Health Now.

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 travel and symptom 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.

Additionally, we have restricted patient visitors, are staffing a free community screening hotline 24/7, and canceled or postponed many public events through April. 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 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.