With each passing day, news of the coronavirus brings new concerns—and questions. Are you and your loved ones at risk? Why does it seem to be spreading so rapidly? Most of all, what can you do to protect yourself from becoming infected?
Dr. Gerald Early, Chief Medical Officer at Pullman Regional Hospital, offers some insight, history, and perspective on this virus. “Coronavirus infections have long been part of the human condition. Since 2000, we developed an increased awareness of their effects. One point to note is that coronaviruses seem to be able to change faster than humans and other hosts can change,” he states.
In February 2003, a new or “novel” coronavirus was identified in China. The disease it caused came to be known as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which resulted in 8,046 identified cases. Another strain of the coronavirus was responsible for MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome. It was first identified in September of 2012 and continued through 2015 with a total of 2,400 confirmed cases.
Symptoms of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus
Coronaviruses are a common cause of colds or upper respiratory tract infections. Some strains are thought to cause gastroenteritis, resulting in diarrhea and an upset stomach. For the current coronavirus, symptoms are similar to a severe cold or a moderately severe cold.
“What differentiates it from the common cold is that it does not follow a normal course and involves the development of pneumonia-like symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a severe unremitting cough, and a progressive overall feeling of illness and not being well,” explains Dr. Early. “So, it’s not something you’d say, ‘oh it’s this specific thing.’ It’s kind of a plethora of things together that indicate you’re significantly sicker than you usually get with a cold.”
If any individual has these symptoms and has had exposure, it’s time to seek medical attention. “Exposure” represents recent travel to China, or recent association with someone who has traveled in China—or, as the virus progresses, other areas around the globe where there are considerable outbreaks.
How to Prevent the Coronavirus
The World Health Organization (WHO) has made public its recommendations for prevention. Avoiding close contact with people who have acute respiratory infections, frequent hand-washing—especially after direct contact with ill individuals or their environment—and avoiding unprotected contact with farm or wild animals are all guidelines to avoid transmission.
“People with symptoms of acute respiratory infections should also practice cough etiquette. That is, maintain your distance from others, cover your coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or your clothing, and wash your hands,” adds Dr. Early. Healthcare facilities should heighten their infection prevention and control practices, especially in emergency departments.
Why Cautious Concern about the Coronavirus is Warranted
No antimicrobials are available for this novel coronavirus, so treatment is supportive and symptom based. Dr. Early notes that for 80% of individuals infected, it will be similar to any other cold they’ve ever had. For the remaining 20%, the infection will be more severe.
“It’s good to know that this new coronavirus seems to have a lower mortality rate than SARS or MERS. But, it is significant, and it’s a justifiable cause of concern. Personally, I’m more afraid that I’ll die in the near future because I forget to buckle my seatbelt when I drive home. But, that doesn’t mean we should be dismissive of this infection, because it is a world health problem,” he cautions.
To keep up to date on the coronavirus, Dr. Early lists reputable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the WHO, both of which can be accessed with an online search.
“We do need to be cognizant of what’s going on. And, we should expect to find confusing pieces of information that will be circulated among the public. Our understanding of the disease will expand with time. These are good places to go for reliable information,” he concludes.