The recent coronavirus pandemic is quickly changing everyday life in the United States, but what exactly is it? Where’d it come from? And why all of the hoopla? I’ve tried to get you some answers.
What’s coronavirus and how does it spread?
According to the Pharma Technology Focus, a trade magazine for the pharmaceutical industry, China alerted the World Health Organization of the first cases of a mysterious infectious disease on Dec. 31, 2019, in Wuhan, a city in mainland China with a population of about 11 million people.
On Jan. 7, Chinese officials identified the coronavirus — “a family of viruses including the common cold, SARS and MERS.” If you look at these viruses with high-powered microscopes, they resemble crowns. Corona is Latin for crown, hence the name. Officials temporarily named the virus 2019-nCoV. A virus named SARS-CoV-2 causes coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19 for short. Remember, the virus is not exactly the same as the disease it causes.
“Most coronaviruses are harmless,” Dr. Bhanu Sud, an infectious disease specialist, recently told healthline.com. “They’ll usually cause mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. Most people will get infected with these viruses at some point in their lives.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 “probably emerged from an animal source, but is now spreading from person to person.” Global health authorities suspect that the virus is spread primarily between people who are within roughly six feet of each other and through “respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
“It also may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Why Wuhan, China?
Remember SARS? Short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. That was a similarly viral respiratory illness that caused problems for the world in 2002 and 2003. As with the new coronavirus, that disease also originated in mainland China.
According to Vox, an online news publication, “a lot of the viruses that make us sick actually originated in animals. Some of the viruses that cause the flu actually come from birds and pigs. HIV/AIDS comes from chimpanzees. The deadly ebola virus likely originates in bats. And in the case of the 2019 coronavirus, there’s some evidence it went from a bat to a pangolin [a scaly anteater] before infecting a human.
“While viruses are very good at jumping between species, it’s rare for a deadly virus to make this journey all the way to humans. That’s because it would need all these hosts to encounter each other at some point.”
But the market in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 is said to have originated, is a wet market, where “live animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption.”
Peter Li, an expert on animal trade in China, told Vox that he wasn’t surprised that the virus started in a wet market.
“The cages are stacked one over another,” Li said. “Animals at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquid — animal excrement, pus, blood — whatever the liquid they are receiving from the animals above.”
So, that’s how a virus spreads from animal to animal. If the infected animal comes into “contact with, or is consumed by, a human, the virus can potentially infect them. And if the virus then spreads to other humans, it causes an outbreak.”
There are many wet markets all over Africa, China and South America, but China’s wet markets are unique, because they contain exotic animals from all over the globe, Vox explains.
Still, what’s the big deal? Aren’t people overreacting?
Some people have commented that lots of people get sick with the seasonal flu each year and we’ve never panicked the way we’re panicking now. This seems like a reasonable observation. Besides, the CDC has estimated that from Oct. 1, 2019 through March 7, 2020, there have been between 35 million and 51 million cases of flu illness in the United States. Among those, between 370,000 and 670,000 have required hospitalization and between 22,000 and 55,000 flu cases were fatal in this country.
As of March 15, there were just 162,600 confirmed coronavirus cases and roughly 5,800 deaths, according to an NBC News report that cites data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. In the United States, there were 3,224 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 61 coronavirus-related fatalities, as of March 15, NBC reports.
But Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and a New York Times health blogger, explains that comparing the novel coronavirus with the flu is misleading. That flu data is “spread out over eight months or more,” he said. COVID-19 cases, however, are increasing exponentially. That means that the cases are increasing very, very quickly in a short period of time and the pace of increase is currently beyond our ability to control.
And while many public health authorities grapple with pinning down a precise fatality rate for COVID-19 — considering that different countries have different fatality rates due to various reasons (i.e., high poverty rates, less advanced medical systems, etc.) — there is general consensus among authorities that COVID-19 is much more fatal than the seasonal flu.
“The mortality for seasonal flu is 0.1 percent,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, during a recent cable news interview. “The mortality for this [COVID-19] about 2, 2.5 percent. It’s probably lower than that; it’s probably closer to 1 [percent]. But even if its 1 [percent], it’s 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
“Further, a greater proportion of people who are becoming ill now are seriously sick. According to some estimates, 10 percent to 20 percent of those who are infected may require hospitalization,” Carroll writes. “In a metropolitan setting, if enough people become infected, the numbers who may need significant care will easily overwhelm our capacity to provide it.”
Another difference between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu is that there is no vaccine and no specific antiviral treatment for the former. In addition, there isn’t enough testing being done in the United States in order to give authorities a good estimate of how many cases actually exist. So, it’s very likely that the number of COVID-19 cases is much higher. After all, people can harbor the virus without exhibiting any symptoms and spread it to high-risk people like senior citizens.
Testing is incredibly important. Knowing who has COVID-19 and taking the steps to distance those patients from people who aren’t ill is how, for instance, South Korea “flattened its curve,” or slowed COVID-19’s exponential growth, getting to a point where the country’s health system can manage the virus.
“If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go big peaks, and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down,” Fauci told statnews.com. “That would have less people infected. That would ultimately have less deaths. You do that by trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak.”
“The ideal goal in fighting an epidemic or pandemic is to completely halt the spread,” according to a New York Times report. “But merely slowing it — mitigation — is critical. This reduces the number of cases that are active at any given time, which in turn gives doctors, hospitals, police, schools and vaccine-manufacturers time to prepare and respond, without becoming overwhelmed. Most hospitals can function with 10 percent reduction in staff, but not with half their people out at once.”
What’s with social distancing?
You may think politicians like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. JB Pritzker are crazy for ordering bars and restaurants closed, or limiting crowd sizes, but many health authorities will tell you that the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed with cases is by practicing what’s called “social distancing.”
Social distancing is just the practice of encouraging people “to avoid public gatherings, to stay home more often and to keep their distance from others,” the Washington Post reports. “If people are less mobile and interact with each other less, the virus has fewer opportunities to spread.”
And the only realistic way to ensure that we’re actually distancing ourselves from one another on a systemic basis is by the government making us do it, many experts say. People’s very lives likely depend on it.
Do facial masks work?
You may have likely seen people walking around with facial masks in order to protect themselves from getting COVID-19. Dr Shunmay Yeung from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the BBC recently that while people think the masks are protecting them from the virus, “the virus is not floating around in the air, so [the mask is] not protecting me against anything because it’s not there. It’s probably going to be on my hand.”
The World Health Organization explains that you should only wear a mask if you’re healthy and are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19; if you’re coughing or sneezing; and if you’re using it and disposing it properly.
“Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water,” WHO explains.
In short, Yeung explains, “if you’re not close to people, they’re not coughing and sneezing on you, then a face mask isn’t necessary.”