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School closings, people missing work, wearing masks when outdoors, a shortage of workers to get things done…not to mention general disruption to your life and the worst-case scenario: deaths. This is what we have to look forward to in the coming weeks and possibly months now that a new coronavirus has hit the scene.
Here is what we know as of this writing (will change by tomorrow). 846 cases that started in Wuhan City, China, less than one month ago. It started in a market that was selling exotic animals that the Chinese like to eat. The virus may have started in the palm civet, a cat-like animal. 25 people have died. Almost 25% of those infected became seriously ill, requiring hospitalization, or critically ill, requiring an intensive care stay. Scary stuff.
Why does all of this matter? This virus, which has no official name yet, is brand new. That means no human has immunity to it. Having no immunity makes us susceptible to serious problems. As one would expect, the serious cases are in the older age groups, where immunity in general has waned due to age. There is the potential for hundreds of thousands of people to become sick with many deaths. That is why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are taking this seriously.
Luckily, the CDC and the WHO have some experience in this area. In November 2002 there was an outbreak of SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, also a coronavirus. It started in China and spread to other countries, including the U.S. Travel advisories and strict infection control procedures for hospitals went into effect via recommendations of the CDC. By July 2003 the virus was contained. By most standards, that was a pretty amazing feat. MERS, middle eastern respiratory syndrome, is a similar coronavirus which tormented that area of the world. It has been contained fairly well. Scientists believe the current coronavirus is similar to SARS.
It is a little difficult to predict what will happen but the CDC and the WHO are on top of things. China has implemented strict quarantine measures and travel restrictions. They learned a lot from dealing with SARS and they are basing their decisions on the previous outbreak. The WHO has not hit the panic button. Their job is to determine when to declare the new virus an international emergency, which they have yet to do. They are watching events closely.
If it appears the virus is spreading here, all hospitals and health care providers will take extra precautions to isolate infected people and to protect themselves. These types of outbreaks tend to disproportionately affect health care providers, for obvious reasons.
As scary as this new virus is, we still know how to contain it. In that regard, it is no different from the common cold (also a coronavirus). It is going to take a coordinated effort by everyone to make it work. The steps are simple. Use the same precautions you would to protect yourself from other respiratory infections. Do frequent hand washing, avoid touching your eyes and nose and stay six feet away from people who are coughing and sneezing.
Don’t hope for a vaccine. Even if scientists started today to produce a vaccine it will still take months before one is available for use. By then, the virus has either spread like wildfire or is contained. We must rely on the tried and true methods. They will work if everyone uses them.
McIntosh, Kenneth. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Up-To-Date. Updated January 15, 2020. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/severe-acute-respiratory-syndrome-sars?search=sars&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~23&usage_type=default&display_rank=1
Situation Report. January 22, 2020. The World Health Organization.https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200122-sitrep-2-2019-ncov.pdf