There has been a lot of buzz in mainstream and social media lately about the newest emergence of the virus to make its way to the United States. The commonly dubbed “coronavirus” has been the latest cause for health panic, travel doubts, and frivolous spending on preventative measures. But is all the hype worth the stress it seems to be causing? My opinion: not at all. And here is why.
Background: The term “coronavirus” refers to a large family and classification of viral pathogens. There are many worldwide commonly occurring coronaviruses present in both humans and animals. The new emergence has not been officially named, and is also referred to as the Novel Coronavirus. The term “novel” is only to reference the original appearance, as in a “novel” idea. The strain is believed to originate somewhere from the Wuhan, China area, although the originating host has not been identified, nor the genetic sequence been fully decoded yet. The use of the word “coronavirus” was to allow healthcare providers to understand the initial composition to begin treatment and prevention plans as used in other coronavirus infections. But the truth is that these are in no way a new occurrence and previous public health concerns such as the SARS and MERS outbreaks were also coronaviruses. The common cold and seasonal flu are also very similar in structure and transmission, and likewise usually present with nothing more than mild to moderate upper-respiratory complications.
Why you should NOT worry: There is nothing wrong with using a degree of caution when planning to keep you and your family safe and healthy. You are only at risk if you have traveled to China, been in direct contact with someone who has recently traveled to China, or been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. But considering that there have been only eight cases in the United States—none of which have been in Colorado (all potentials have tested negative)—your likelihood of contracting the Wuhan coronavirus are slim to none. At the time of this writing, the most recent World Health Organization report noted that there have been 14,557 confirmed cases worldwide and 305 deaths, with only one death reported outside of China. The United States alone has seen around 19 million flu cases this season, with approximately 10,000 deaths attributed.
What you should do: Preventative and protection methods against the Wuhan coronavirus are as simple as the measures taken to prevent the annual seasonal flu. Avoiding direct contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus is the only sure way to prevent infection, and avoiding people who are sick in general will help you with the overall prevention of catching seasonal influenza and cold. Wipe down frequently used surfaces with disinfectant such as the widely used Clorox and Lysol (or similar brand) agents that are effective at killing the virus. Avoid and cover coughs and sneezes, and do not attend work or school if you are sick. Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water, and use 60% or higher alcohol-based sanitizers if you are not able to wash your hands. There is no need to avoid purchases or shipments from China, as the virus is not able to persist on surfaces for long. There is no protection to be had from wearing surgical-style face masks, and the CDC discourages it. Additionally, many suppliers are selling out of these products, creating a price-gouging effect on the market, which generates secondary repercussions for health care facilities that regularly use these products.
Why all the fuss in the media?: The abundance of caution with this new coronavirus comes from two primary factors: 1) we do not know the extent of the genetic sequence, and therefore do not know the inherent dangers and facts of mortality and transmission; 2) this is a unique mutation of coronaviruses that appears to cause pneumonia, which has not been the case in previous strains and variations. The media using frightening terminology, video, and headline reports creates a market for information demand. And with the constant flow of information, the risk of misinformation rises significantly. I did one search through Facebook feeds with the topic or keyword “coronavirus” and found a multitude of misinformation. One post claimed the virus to be 3,000 times more fatal than seasonal influenza; one claimed the government is to blame and is causing the spread, and all of them have been shared multiple times. When the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other souls crashed in California, many were quick to chastise TMZ for the rapid release of the information before anything was verified or the families were notified. This is no different than the fast sharing and reposting of memes and unverified data on social media with the hopes of “going viral.”
My final thoughts: Every year, we see a new emergence that creates mass panic and hysteria, which is in no way helped by the fuel of the mass media prevalence. The H1N1 virus in 2009 affected numerous continents, labeling it the “Pandemic Flu.” What many people fail to realize is that the H1N1 virus is currently part of the seasonal influenza strain going around this year, and has been many years since, but there is no outrage or mention of it. We have seen a pandemic, swine flu, avian flu, SARS, MERS, and even Ebola. We have one of these “outbreaks” every single year, with every single year yielding massive media hysteria and panic. And each year, they almost never precipitate into such catastrophes. Meanwhile, our annual influenza mortality index remains higher than the new emergent strain that created such chaos. Such fear-mongering causes widespread panic, a saturation of medical facilities, shortages of resources, and the continued misinformation and subsequent conspiracy theories that always arise. So, as long as you aren’t traveling to or from China, protecting your family and self is simple. Since the risk is small, and there are no cases in Colorado, defend yourself as you would against the seasonal flu and cold season. And no, the putting of onion slices on your bedside table, bathing in lavender oil, burning sage/incense, or taking high doses of Emergen-C is going to yield any help. Stay home if you’re sick. Don’t cough on people. Wash your hands. Get your flu shot.
Disclaimer: Although reports across news outlets and media are going to give several different counts and calculations than what you see above, these numbers are all validated and confirmed by the most recent daily situation report available by the CDC and World Health Organization at the time of this writing. Numbers will most likely be different at publication. However, the best resource will continue to be the local and state health agencies, which continually report and publish information and guidelines for events such as this. I highly suggest turning to these resources instead of the mainstream media because knowledge is not helpful just because it was told first—it needs to be valid.