With infection rates rising, global health officials first sounded the alarm in February about a novel coronavirus, which has spawned public health crises in places like China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. At press time, cases had been reported in 60 locales, including the U.S., leading the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic.
By now, the images of mask-clad individuals have become routine. But it’s still scary stuff. It helps to know that our society has survived potential doomsday viruses like MERS, SARS, and the bird and swine flus. So we asked local experts what they thought. On a scale of one to 10, how concerned should we be about a coronavirus epidemic? “I’m at a solid eight,” admits Dr. Shafinaz Akhter, director of antimicrobial stewardship at Chester County Hospital. “We don’t yet have widespread community transmission, but there’s a lot that we don’t know about this virus. It’s evolving in real time—something that rarely happens.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Health described the outbreak as “an emerging, rapidly evolving situation” and issued advisories to hospitals, schools and businesses. The worst-case scenario is that everyone gets sick at the same time, which could happen with any disease. Local health systems have disaster plans.Many of those were created or updated in response to the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic.
“No country in the world has enough hospital beds and medicine to care for a large volume of patients effected by a widespread pandemic,” says Dr. Lawrence Livornese Jr., an infectious disease specialist and chairman of the department of medicine for Main Line Health. “We’re having regular meetings about this that involve all aspects of our health system, from administration to supply chain, pharmacists and infectious disease specialists.”
While no one wants to spread panic, they do want to spread facts about the disease. For starters, there are different kinds of coronaviruses—two of them cause disease in humans. “Of the coronaviruses relating to human disease, four are currently circulating and well known to the medical community,” says Akhter. “They cause 30 percent of colds. In addition to those, we have two unusual ones—severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA—which caused more severe outbreaks.”
The current outbreak has been prompted by a different coronavirus than the culprit in previous SARS scares. For that reason, it’s known as a novel coronavirus, which simply means that it’s new. The virus has officially been named SARS CoV-2. The disease it causes has been dubbed COVID-19, short for Coronavirus Disease 2019.
As a virus of mass destruction, SARS CoV-2 has something going for it. Humans have no immunity because it’s new, so there are no vaccines yet. Nor does the medical community have much to offer in the way of treatments.
SARS CoV-2 seems to lodge in the lower respiratory tract where a virus can easily become pneumonia. “We advise supportive care, like [when you have] the flu,” Livornese says. “Stay hydrated, control the fever and rest.”
COVID-19 is easily transmissible. Another problem with SARS CoV-2—is that there’s no widely available test for it. “We look at infectivity rates of pathogens, and COVID-19 seems to be almost as high as measles,” Akhter says. “With the flu, you’re infectious when you’re sick. With this, asymptomatic people may be able to transmit disease.”
Where do nasty bugs like SARS CoV-2 originate? Viruses—especially coronaviruses—can jump from animals to humans. In many cases, transmission occurs when bats bite animals and humans eat those animals. That can happen at “wet markets,” where people buy live animals and butcher them on site or at home. Eating infected meat is thought to be the origin of HIV, Ebola, MRSA and SARS. “It’s not 100 percent clear that it happened with CoV-2, but it would follow a certain pattern,” says Livornese.
Akhter and Livornese agree that preparation and logic are the best prophylactics for SARS CoV-2. The doctors stress hand washing and respiratory etiquette, like covering your mouth when you cough. Have enough provisions at home to get through a 14-day quarantine.
Most of all, keep a level head. This year, the all-too-familiar influenza virus has killed more than 14,000 people in the U.S. alone. Stay calm, stay hydrated.
And if you’re sick, stay home.