by Jonathon Dickman, MD, PHd
Nearly everyone has now heard of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCOV) outbreak in China, and images of ships being quarantined and warnings about travel to China have been all over television and radio. Many news reports create a sense of fear and worry that our health may be in imminent danger. There is a growing perception that this is a lethal infection. So this leads to the question — how worried should we be?
The sense of impending doom is likely a media induced overreaction. 2019-nCOV is in the same family as other viruses that cause the common cold. Although not completely understood, it is currently believed that this virus spreads through saliva that a person can come into contact with when an infected person coughs, sneezes or does not wash their hands. Currently, wearing an N95 mask is what is recommended for those infected with the virus. 2019-nCOV causes an infection that has a wide variety of symptoms ranging from no symptoms, to cold symptoms, to pneumonia and trouble breathing that can be severe enough to cause death. Although this is similar to most infections we experience during the winter, the illness that occurs from this specific virus was given the name coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19.
At the time this article was written, more than 74,000 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed worldwide resulting in over 2,000 deaths. The best estimate is that a little over 2% of those infected with COVID-19 died, with most deaths occurring in populations that were older or had other significant medical conditions. Thus, the vast majority of people exposed to the virus survive and many have minimal symptoms.
So why is the department of health focusing more on influenza instead of this new virus? As of late February, the CDC estimated that there have already been over 26 million illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths from influenza infection in the United States this season. This contrasts with only 15 confirmed COVID-19 illnesses in the United States. Although more people survive influenza infection, the burden of this infection in the United States is massive in comparison to COVID-19. Influenza infection has resulted in at least 12 million medical visits and many more people missing work or school due to illness — and the flu season is not even close to being over yet. Unlike 2019-nCOV, there is a vaccination available for protection and decreasing the burden of influenza infection, but only about 50% of kids and 68% of older adults have received this immunization. It is not too late to get your vaccination completed!
So, should we start to panic about COVID-19? With all the hype surrounding this viral infection, one would think that most people who get COVID-19 will die and that we need to do something different in order to protect ourselves. This is not true, however, as ~98% of people survive this new viral infection and there are very few cases thus far in the United States; thus, we do not need to live in fear. The advice from medical providers is the same: cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands, stay home if you are sick to avoid infecting others, and get your flu shot completed. If you are very young or old or have other medical problems then call your medical provider’s office for advice on next steps if you are sick. If you are generally healthy, it is rare to need medications or hospitalization for these infections. Always let your medical provider know if you have traveled recently, especially if you went to China. Always feel free to call 651-241-1000 to schedule an appointment at United Family Medicine if you have questions and we can help manage your medical needs.
by Jonathon Dickman, MD, PHd