There’s no shortage of questions about the coronavirus, starting with variations on its name (for the record, the 2019 outbreak is called COVID-19, but it was initially referred to as the “novel coronavirus” – essentially, a previously unidentified coronavirus, and that term refers to the family of respiratory viruses COVID-19 belongs to). Beyond that, queries abound over how it spreads, how it’s being covered in the media, talked about by the president, impacting travel plans and on and on.
There’s ample reason for that curiosity. In Illinois, six people have been diagnosed with the virus since January, including a woman in her 50s who works as a special education classroom assistant at Vaughn Occupational High School on the city’s Northwest Side. Nationwide, 14 people have died from the virus, which first appeared in Wuhan, China, last December. Globally, the virus has sickened more than 101,000 and killed 3,480, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week warned of a potentially severe outbreak in the U.S. and said Americans should prepare themselves for disruptions. But reactions to the spreading virus are varied.
Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, says people need to stay calm. He isn’t altering his day-to-day life or stocking up on hand sanitizer or cleaning supplies. “I’m still taking public transportation when I need it,” he said. People should “stick with the basics, like cleaning your hands.”
Tempted to cover those clean hands with rubber gloves? Lin advises against it. Gloves can become a second skin, he said, and contaminate the surfaces you touch.
To get a better handle on the situation, we asked Lin to weigh in on these 10 questions:
What do you think about the way the virus is being covered by the media? Is it realistic? Too alarmist?
I think that there’s a lot that’s unknown about the coronavirus, and I think with the unknown comes a little bit of fear. That’s understandable and I think the public is picking up on that and so is the media. I do think, for the most part, because the novel coronavirus causes mild disease for most people, that we all need to keep as calm as possible. (The virus) really won’t affect most of us in terms of severe illness.
As you mentioned, there is a lot about the virus that’s unknown. What do we know about the virus and how it spreads?
We know that it causes an illness that’s similar to the flu in the sense that in many people it causes fever, cough and shortness of breath. What’s different from the flu is that there’s no specific treatment for the novel coronavirus, like we do (have) for the flu. And currently there’s no vaccine for the novel coronavirus. So all of us are susceptible to the novel coronavirus, and I think that’s what’s a big part of the unknown: How widely will this virus spread? It’s very unclear.
Since there are currently no treatments or vaccines, how do you treat patients who test positive for COVID-19?
The vast majority of people who come down with novel coronavirus will not require hospitalization. It may feel like a mild cold. It may feel more like the flu. But for most people, they will be able to ride it out at home without having to go to the hospital.
But there are those of us in the community who are older or who have preexisting conditions, like lung disease and heart disease, who may require hospitalization. Those who require hospitalization get supportive care, meaning they get oxygen. Those who require mechanical ventilation, meaning they require a machine to help them breathe, may require that. There are a lot of steps even within supportive care that could make a difference in saving someone’s life.
Who’s most at risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19?
Age does play a role, so we’ve noticed that older patients – greater than age 65 – tend to have more severe disease. Any patient who has preexisting conditions, lung disease or heart disease, may be more susceptible to severe illness.
Is there any indication yet that the virus can be seasonal, like the flu?
This is something that scientists are trying to figure out. We have not gone through a season cycle yet, so we simply don’t know. There are some novel coronaviruses that seem to be more impacted by weather, but others that are not. Unfortunately, it’s always summer and it’s always winter somewhere in the world, and so we may get into a situation where it’ll ebb and flow like seasonal flu.
What measures can people take now to prevent the potential spread of this virus, which is reportedly viable on surfaces for several days?
Cleaning hands is extremely important. I like alcohol-based hand sanitizers because you can carry it everywhere and you can clean your hands as you’re going about throughout the day. Soap and water is also effective.
Besides that, cough etiquette. Coughing into your elbow and not onto your hands can prevent spread. Staying at home if you’re sick is also effective at preventing spread.
Who should be wearing masks at this point, and who should not wear them?
If you’re healthy and you’re trying to stay safe, there’s no evidence that wearing a mask is going to prevent infection. There is plenty of evidence about hand washing and cleaning your hands. If you see someone who’s sick, just stay at least six feet away. Social distancing from people who are sick, that’s the best way to prevent infection.
You’ll see a lot of health care workers wearing masks and those are special masks that are fitted. Right now, the CDC recommends respirator-type masks, and those are the ones we use mostly when we’re in the room with somebody who has novel coronavirus or some unknown respiratory disease.
What about people who are sick? Should they be wearing masks?
If you are sick, the number one thing is to stay home and to stay away from other people. That’s the best way to prevent infection from transmitting. If you have to go out of your house for some reason, there is a role in wearing a mask to prevent from spreading your germs to other people. So if you’re coughing, you’re not spraying droplets to someone nearby. That is one situation where I can see a mask being effective.
Health officials have recommended regularly cleaning commonly touched surfaces. Are traditional household cleaning products sufficient?
If you’re going to be choosing a product, I would look at the label and make sure it’s effective against viruses. It won’t say specifically novel coronavirus, but if it says in general it’s able to clean or kill bacteria and viruses, then it should be effective against the novel coronavirus. I think there are a lot of options for people in terms of wipes, sprays, etc.
What advice do you have for people who may be traveling soon for spring break?
That’s a really important question. I think that we do have to be cautious about travel and avoiding non-essential travel, but we also have to live our lives. I’m taking guidance from the CDC in terms of where we should limit travel, and right now the CDC is focused on international travel to places that have sustained community transmission of novel coronavirus. That situation and list of countries changes frequently, so I would point people to that website first to make sure where they’re going is a place that’s safe.
Interview has been condensed and edited.