What We Know So Far About The Coronavirus
This article was written on January 24, 2020, last updated January 27. Further developments in what we know about the Coronavirus are continuously emerging.
If you live in North America, you may have heard the term Coronavirus for the first time during the week of January 20th, 2019. I did. More accurately, the Coronavirus strain in the headlines now is the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), also known as the China or Wuhan Coronavirus.1 The emergence of new viruses such as these can often be of greater concern to those of us with lung disease, like asthma, and other chronic health conditions.
New-to-us viruses aren’t always new. The coronavirus is actually a common cause of colds and respiratory tract infections.2 However, it has more severe strains; the current Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, the 2003 SARS outbreak (the virus associated with severe acute respiratory syndrome), and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were also strains of coronavirus.3
2019 Novel Coronavirus: What we know so far
The current Coronavirus strain emerged in China in late 2019. Earlier this week, it became a widespread public health crisis with more than 500 cases reported in China and 2 reported cases in the United States. The virus has also been deadly in more than 80 cases in China (stats current as of 11:30 AM CST on January 27).2,4
Often, viruses originate in animal species before their emergence in humans. This strain of coronavirus is believed to have “most likely” originated in snakes, an item available for purchase at the wholesale market in China thought to be ground-zero for the virus.5 Understanding the species of origin of a virus is stated to help in determining methods of response, such as anti-viral medications.5
What should we be aware of?
The two cases of COVID-19 in the United States are believed to have direct links to people who have traveled to China. As of January 23 at 10 AM, air and rail travel out of Wuhan has been suspended with city airports and rail stations shut down. Public transit has similarly temporarily ceased to prevent spread of the virus.6 Those already in China should wash their hands frequently, avoid contact with people who are sick, avoid all animals (alive and dead), animal markets, and animal products (such as uncooked meat).7
Those who have returned from China within the last 14 days and develop fever, cough, or breathing problems should avoid contact with others, not travel until well, and present for medical care. They should also advise of their travel history by phone before presenting to a clinic or emergency room. Infection prevention techniques should be used, detailed as below.7
Prevention techniques similar to those for any other respiratory virus are recommended by the CDC. This includes proper hand washing, avoiding contact with sick people, staying home if you are sick, covering coughs and sneezes, and regular disinfection of surfaces and objects.8 Generally, wearing paper (surgical) masks is considered ineffective.9
Travel plans and COVID-19
As of January 23rd, the World Health Organization (WHO) is not designating this novel Coronavirus as an international public health emergency—yet.9 Avoiding nonessential travel to China is recommended with some airlines allowing free rebooking with a travel credit to use later, though other travel plans likely do not need to be changed. Some airports, including in the US, have begun health screenings for travelers arriving from Wuhan province and other affected areas of China.9 The effectiveness of this is not known, as reports state the virus can be contagious before symptoms begin.10
It may be advisable to hold off on travel plans until more is known about the virus. Although, the risk of acquiring the virus passing by someone who has been exposed—in an airport, for instance—is low.9 Since the time of writing, the travel advisory has been updated from Level 1 (watch - practice usual precautions) to Level 2 (alert - practice enhanced precautions).7
Personally, I was making plans for some travel in the US in February during this past week. While it didn’t work out for other reasons, I did decide it would ease my mind to wait until we know more about this virus before planning more travel. I certainly wouldn’t have canceled any prearranged itineraries. However, understanding more of what we don’t know about the coronavirus—including how it is transmitted among humans—will, of course, help inform my plans and feel more at ease given the added complications of asthma and respiratory viruses. Until we know more, the risk may not be worth it.
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