News headlines about the novel Wuhan coronavirus seem to get a bit more frightening each day, and the number of infected people is increasing, as is the geographic spread of the illness. But a review of the facts can help put the risk in perspective.
Coronaviruses, so named because of their crown-like shape when viewed under a microscope, are nothing new. They often cause respiratory illnesses or the cold, and in rarer cases, result in Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). First detected in the city of Wuhan, China, the new strain is spreading rapidly.
As of early this week, the virus had been blamed for 362 deaths globally, with all but one of the fatalities happening in China. It is believed to have infected more than 17,000 people around the world, most of whom recover after experiencing flu-like symptoms. According to figures published Monday, there were 11 confirmed cases in the United States, including one in Massachusetts.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the man is in his 20s, lives in Boston, and recently returned from Wuhan. He sought medical care soon after returning to Boston, and has been placed in isolation during his recovery. His few close contacts have been identified and are being monitored for any symptoms, which can include fever, cough and shortness of breath, and, in severe cases, pneumonia.
Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said the state has been preparing for the arrival of the virus, “and we were fortunate that astute clinicians took appropriate action quickly. Again, the risk to the public from the 2019 novel coronavirus remains low in Massachusetts,” she said.
The virus can be spread between people like other respiratory viruses including the flu, so the most effective means of preventing the spread is to frequently wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, to cover coughs and sneezes, and to stay home when feeling ill. They’re the same precautions that can protect against the flu, which caused more than 6,500 deaths in the U.S. in 2017, despite the availability of a vaccine. The mortality rate from the novel coronavirus is still being established, but it is believed to be significantly lower than that from the flu.
Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the new virus a “very serious public health threat,” and predicts that more cases will emerge in the coming days in the U.S., including cases transmitted from person to person. But the risk remains highest among those who recently traveled to China and their contacts, officials say. Work is underway to improve testing for the virus, and in time, to potentially develop a vaccine.
According to an article published by Cape Cod Healthcare last week, most local residents don’t need to fret about the novel coronavirus.
“Right now, if you are living on Cape Cod, your chances of dying from the flu are much higher than your chances of dying from the coronavirus,” said Dr. David Pombo, medical director of infectious disease at Cape Cod Healthcare. “People living on the Cape do not need to be concerned about getting the coronavirus at this time.”
Public health experts urge people to get a flu shot, even this late in the season, and to practice good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. If you develop symptoms of a cold or flu, stay home from work or school.
What about face masks? Experts say that while certain surgical masks can provide some limited protection, they are generally designed to reduce the germs spread by the wearer. To be effective, masks need to have a high degree of filtration, must fit tightly around the face, and should be changed regularly—without touching the outside of the mask. For that reason, the World Health Organization does not recommend the use of masks for those not already showing symptoms of respiratory illness.
The virus can only live on surfaces for a few hours, according to the WHO, and therefore there is no risk of transmission from parcel packages coming from China. The virus can also be easily killed on surfaces using common disinfectants.
Aside from possible transmission at live animal markets in China, the novel coronavirus is not easily transmitted from animals to people, the WHO reports. There is no evidence of any spread of the virus through cats and dogs.