Coronavirus: What you need to know

by Dr. Manohar Jethani

You can’t turn on the TV, radio, or go online these days without hearing something about coronavirus. Some people are dismissing it as a hoax, while others are in full-blown panic mode, hoarding supplies to prepare for the End of Days.

There’s a lot of confusion right now, and that seldom leads to good decision making.

Here’s what you need to know about coronavirus.

What exactly is coronavirus?

Coronavirus, or “COVID-19”, is a respiratory illness that was first identified last year during an outbreak in Wuhan, China. It spreads from person to person, but the exact manner of transmission is not yet fully understood. (More on that below.)

While first observed in China, coronavirus has now spread to much of the world, including the United States. The first reported case here was on January 21 of this year. As of this writing, there have been 80 total cases across 13 US states. There have been 9 deaths so far. (Here’s a link to the Centers for Disease Control’s official tally of coronavirus incidents.)

How is coronavirus spread?

We know a lot about how coronavirus spreads, but we don’t yet know everything. (For instance, it’s hypothesized that coronavirus originally emerged from an animal.) Because it’s a respiratory illness, it primarily spreads through droplets produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs. We also believe coronavirus may be transmitted by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Think about the places where you commonly touch public surfaces, like:

  • self-serve checkout screens at the supermarket
  • ellipticals, treadmills, and weights at the gym
  • mass transit vehicles, like buses, airplanes, and trains
  • vacation destinations, like hotels or cruise ships
  • schools
  • meeting rooms

—and so on.

Chicago subway platform

Does this mean you are at risk of getting coronavirus in public places? Technically, yes, but the odds are much greater of your catching it due to someone coughing or sneezing than by simply touching a surface that happens to be contaminated.

Some people and organizations are deciding to cut back on air travel and large public gatherings until the pandemic abates, which is a sensible thing to do. But that doesn’t mean you should panic if you find yourself in a public setting. It’s almost impossible to completely avoid being in one at some point!

How dangerous is coronavirus?

Most of the story we’ve been hearing about coronavirus focuses on the perceived dangers it poses, and, to be sure, nine people so far have died this year in the US from it. 

But let’s put that number in perspective. By this point in the year, we Americans will probably see— 

  • roughly 5,700 fatalities due to car accidents (source)
  • approximately 11,000 fatalities from drug overdose (source)
  • about 6,200 fatalities from gun violence (source)
  • 105 child fatalities due to the flu (source)

These statistics are not meant to minimize the risk of coronavirus, but it’s worth asking whether the amount of fear you feel is in proportion to the actual risk involved. (If you really want to reduce your risk of dying in America, lose some weight & get your heart in order. We’re in the middle of a major diabetes epidemic.)

Man needs to lose weight

For most people, coronavirus manifests with common respiratory symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • cough
  • shortness of breath

In most cases, the symptoms are generally quite mild. (Check out Carl Goldman’s insightful article,”I have the coronavirus. So far, it hasn’t been that bad for me.”) And if you’re pregnant, the good news is that there is zero evidence so far that you can pass coronavirus onto your baby.

There is one group, however, that should take greater care to avoid catching coronavirus: those who already suffer from an impaired immune system. That includes—

  • diabetics
  • smokers
  • those with chronic lung disease
  • those with chronic heart disease

—and so on.

For these folks, they should be extra vigilant at this time to avoid catching coronavirus because doing so could cause greater harm. In addition to the symptoms listed earlier, these at-risk populations could also develop—

  • pneumonia
  • severe acute respiratory syndrome
  • kidney failure

—and have a higher risk of death due to coronavirus.

 

What you can do to avoid catching coronavirus

Luckily, there are several things you can do to significantly reduce your risk of catching coronavirus.

Wash your hands— often.

This cannot be overstated. Whenever you come back from a public place, wash your hands with generous amounts of soap. Carry some Purell hand sanitizer with you for those times when it’s inconvenient to wash with soap and water.

Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

sneeze

Common sense, right? Yet we see so many examples where this isn’t done. And don’t obsess over getting face mask: they don’t actually do much good compared to the other tips listed here.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth if your hands are not clean.

Again, file this under “obviously.”

Avoid public areas if you’re sick

crowded space

Maybe avoid big crowd situations when you can.

Even presidential hopefuls are starting to cut back on the handshakes, hugs, and kisses. Follow their lead.

Avoid traveling to high-risk areas.

Here’s a handy map by the CDC which shows you the risk assessment for each country.

 

What should you do if you develop symptoms?

First, don’t panic. Seriously. Unless you belong to an at-risk population like one of the groups mentioned above, you’ll almost certainly be just fine. Public health officials recommend you treat mild respiratory ailments just as you normally would: pick up some over-the-counter cold and flu medicine from your local pharmacy, drink plenty of fluids (water and Gatorade), and binge watch some Netflix from the comfort of your couch.

Binge watching

For more serious symptoms, you should see your doctor. While most clinics are not yet able to perform coronavirus tests, we can assess the severity of your symptoms and, if necessary, refer you for a full coronavirus screening.

It’s easy to feel panic when the media keeps showing us images of sick people, line graphs showing a tanking stock market, and reports of new cases popping up in different cities. But the reality is that coronavirus is going to be contained. The steps above give you several sensible ways to avoid catching it, and if you’re really worried despite all I’ve told you, come on in & let me take a look at you.

In the meantime, don’t worry about coronavirus. Focus your attention on the things that have a much higher chance of negatively impacting your health.

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