The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, made landfall in the United States on January 20, 2020. The first fatality occurred in Washington State in an elder care facility, and as of now, over 19,000 people in the US have been confirmed to have the virus. The stock market is reacting violently to the global threat of the virus, and stay home orders have shuttered the country.
This particular virus is termed "novel" because it has never before been seen in humans, which means we have no natural immunity to it, and is why it is spreading so rapidly. It is thought to have been infecting some animal after being bitten by a bat (possibly a pangolin) in a market in Wuhan of Hubei Province, China, when it made the jump to humans (called a zoonotic virus).
WHAT IS CORONAVIRUS?
A coronavirus is so-called because of the structure of the virus itself. There are viral spike peplomers sprouting from the virion seen when under an electron microscope, which appear as a halo or corona. This strain has been officially named COVID-19. The CO stands for corona, VI for virus, D for disease, and 19 stands for 2019. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, with some infecting humans (most strains of the common cold are coronaviruses) and others infecting animals.
Very few coronaviruses make the jump from species to species. Some of note in the past 20 years are the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus of 2003 with a fatality rate of approximately 11%, and the considerably more deadly MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) of 2012, with a 34% fatality rate.
This particular strain likely made the jump from bats or snakes to humans. From there, it was found to be infectious person-to-person (not all zoonotic viruses can do this), which is where we find ourselves now.
This is all pretty heavy stuff. Most cases will resolve after a minor illness, but for some, the virus can be a life-threatening or even fatal contagion. Charlie Chaplin said, "To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it." We're going to need a lot of positives in the coming months, so I'll try to pepper this post with a little fun to lighten the heavy, if only a bit.
WHAT ARE SYMPTOMS OF COVID-19?
Symptoms of the current coronavirus include coughing, fever, sore throat and its defining characteristic: respiratory difficulty/shortness of breath. Some have reported symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms may show up anywhere from 2-14 days after exposure to the virus, and are variable in severity. Death can occur in severe cases.
You may have trouble differentiating symptoms of a cold or the flu from COVID-19. Here's a helpful graphic from the CDC/WHO:
WHO WILL GET SICK?
Anyone can become sick with COVID-19. In the beginning, the most severe cases reported generally seemed to be older adults who are already in poor health. Children do not appear to be more susceptible to the virus than any other cohort.
There is a working theory that children may actually be less likely to be infected or severely ill with this coronavirus because they are frequently infected with other strains of coronavirus, providing them with some immunological response, where adults may not have the same immunity as we get colds less often.
The Director General of the WHO, Bruce Aylward, says that 38% of cases of people sick enough to be hospitalized are under 55. Italy is finding that 10% of people landed in the ICU are otherwise healthy young people under 50. This is likely because young people heard initially that the virus was higher risk for older people, so they continued be-bopping around as though there was no risk to them. Make no mistake: THIS VIRUS IS A RISK TO PEOPLE OF ALL AGES.
Let's also be clear: THERE IS NO PARTICULAR ETHNIC GROUP THAT IS EITHER MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO OR RESPONSIBLE FOR THE VIRUS. Let's not be racist on top of all the rest of the stress we're feeling. Don't, as some have, call it the "Chinese Virus." A virus has no ethnicity, it does not discriminate, and neither should we. The stigma of this kind of rhetoric against the Asian community is both undeserved and beneath us as a global community. It can promote prejudice at the very least, and potentially incite violence at our worst moments. This is an "all of humanity" problem, and we should treat it as such. Be kind to one another.
HOW DOES IT SPREAD?
COVID-19 has been shown to spread person-to-person, likely by airborne droplets from sneezing or coughing, and contaminated surfaces. It is unknown how long the virus can live outside of a host, and scientists acknowledge that they are continuing to learn more about the virus.
PREVENTION: DO I NEED A MASK?
There has been a run on masks globally to combat the spread of COVID-19. Contrary to public belief, wearing a surgical mask will not prevent a healthy person from contracting the virus. Surgical masks are used by healthcare professionals to protect patients from pathogens in the droplets they breathe in and out as they provide care. If you suspect you are sick with COVID-19, wearing a surgical mask may help prevent the spread of the disease, but in general, it won't help you stay healthy if you do not have it, as these masks are not fitted tightly to the face, and they have holes in them that are large enough to let in the virus.
As for the N95 respirators, such as those we sell here at Zee, it's important to understand the government rating system of such respirators. The N stands for "not oil resistant" and the 95 rating means that the mask prevents inhalation of 95% of all particles that are at least 0.3 microns in diameter. Coronaviruses can range in size from 0.06 microns in diameter to 0.14 microns, with the average being 0.125 microns in diameter. All of which are small enough to potentially be inhaled through an N95 mask.
This is not to say that a mask, when properly fit-tested, cannot make a difference, but a fit-test is required to make sure that the mask is properly covering the nose and mouth of the wearer, with no gaps or unfiltered edges between the mask itself and the skin of the face. The concern is more touching your face after touching a contaminated surface.
Update: The CDC recommends wearing a cloth mask or face covering in public settings where staying 6 feet apart may be difficult (grocery stores, pharmacies, etc.) to help slow the spread. This is to stop asymptomatic people from spreading the virus unwittingly. I know it's hard, but think of it as an act of kindness for your community. If you are an asymptomatic carrier, your breath may very well be lethal to someone else. It seems like an overreaction, but there are otherwise seemingly healthy adults with asthma, underlying heart or lung conditions, immunosuppression, who are afraid. Put yourself in their shoes for just a brief moment. A mask is a simple thing that can at least keep your germs to yourself for the 20 minutes you need to spend in the grocery store.
This recommendation does not require a medical-grade mask. Please save medical-grade masks for the sick, and the health care workers caring for them who really need them. There are many tutorials online for making your own cloth mask at home. Some are even no-sew.
While we're in it, please continue to practice social distancing, cough and sneeze into your sleeve, avoid touching your face, and wash hands frequently with soap and warm water, for 20 seconds.
PREVENTION: WHAT CLEANING PRODUCTS KILL COVID-19?
Most conventional household cleaners and disinfectants, when used properly, will neutralize and remove the novel coronavirus.
- Basic soap and water can kill the virus. The detergent in soap will break down the protein that encases the virus, effectively gutting it. Using soap and water is a simple, easy way to clean hands and surfaces.
- Bleach is a harsh solution, and will kill essentially any pathogen it encounters. Be careful with bleach--its caustic nature can harm surfaces and fabrics, and can also burn your skin.
- Alcohol (use one with a 70% solution), and Hydrogen Peroxide are both gentler solutions than bleach. No need to dilute either with water, but note that both can potentially discolor fabrics or some plastics.
- Don't bother with vinegar or drinking alcohols. These are not strong enough to kill the virus. Plus, drinking alcohol will leave a sticky residue. Sticky does not a clean surface make.
- When cleaning, really scrub the surface you are disinfecting, and let the solution evaporate naturally.
PREVENTION: DO I HAVE TO STAY HOME, SERIOUSLY?
Yes. Please, please stay home. Cancel your upcoming vacation, don't go to your bowling league, work from home if possible. California is requiring residents to stay home for all nonessential trips. Illinois has followed suit. Wisconsin has cancelled the remainder of the school year for public schools. This is the real deal, people. Staying home will save lives. Maybe your life isn't in particular danger, but the lives of others are.
WHAT DO I DO IF I THINK I HAVE CORONAVIRUS?
If, after looking at the chart above, you believe you or a family member have COVID-19, call your doctor or health facility for instructions. DO NOT SHOW UP AT A HOSPITAL OR MEDICAL FACILITY WITHOUT CALLING FIRST. Calling first will ensure that facilities are prepared for your arrival with proper protocols in place, and will have a test at the ready for you when you arrive, if they are available. Right now, tests appear to be at a premium. Listen to your health care professionals, and follow their advice. They are doing everything they can to care for as many people as possible. They are the front line of this crisis, and are stressed to the max. Know that right now, they are doing everything they can, often with little to no resources. Give them the benefit of the doubt, that they will help you in any way possible, even if that means instructing you to shelter in place at home.
If you believe you have been exposed to the virus, but have no symptoms, please self-quarantine at home. This means you should try to have about 2 weeks worth of supplies in your home at any given time so that you can shelter in place without exposing others. Freezer friendly meats and vegetables, canned goods, dry soups, pancake mixes, dried pasta, and rice are all items that are useful to have on hand.
Do you need 6 months of toilet paper? No. No, you don't. Don't be that guy. I beg you. My family purposely didn't buy out a shelf of toilet paper, because we didn't want to contribute to the problem. We get a monthly shipment from Amazon's subscribe and save, and I'm hopeful that they'll be restocked by the time our next shipment is due in April. Seriously, with any product, don't be that guy. Especially don't be this guy.
IS THIS ALL AN OVERREACTION?
In a word, no. The whole point of an overreaction for something of this nature is to prevent the spread and "flatten the curve" so that fewer people get sick all at once. If too many people get sick all at once, hospitals and medical facilities will be overrun. The overreaction is the containment. Panic, on the other hand, is different from overreacting. Do not panic. (Easier said than done, I know.) But doing the hard work now to lower the incidence of new cases will ensure we have the facilities, bandwidth, equipment, personnel and energy to handle the disease over time.
We have about 62,000 full-feature ventilators in the US, with approximately 12,700 basic ventilators held by the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) for emergency deployment. And to be clear, not every person who contracts COVID-19 requires a ventilator. The vast majority of cases are mild. But there are many other patients with other ailments or injuries who do require the use of these ventilators. Surgical patients, premature babies, stroke and heart attack victims, people in a coma, those with lung disease or injuries, ALS patients, all require the use of a ventilator. I could go on. A sudden influx of patients who require a ventilator will potentially leave doctors with the impossible decision of who gets to breathe and who does not, as they are encountering in Italy.
Some food for thought: South Korea and the United States both confirmed their first case of COVID-19 on January 20 of this year. Since then, as of this post, South Korea has implemented drive-up curbside testing, and has completed nearly 300,000 tests of their citizens. They have contained the virus to under 9,000 cases with 84 deaths, and their daily incidence level of new cases is sharply dropping.
Contrast that to the United States, where as of March 19, 2020, we have over 19,000 cases and 263 deaths, and our daily incidence level of new cases is exponentially rising. The graphs on this website provide a stunning visual of cases since March 1. From March 18 to 19 alone, over 4,000 more cases were confirmed.
Having a swift, uniform response nationally to the virus is what will help us get back to life as we knew it.
WHAT CAN I DO?
Okay, so. News headlines are designed to pitch anxieties. Staying home and practicing social distancing isn't fun. But you're not necessarily quarantining for your own sake. You quarantine to help prevent the spread of a potentially fatal virus to the more vulnerable populations. The elderly, the immune compromised. The point of staying home is to prevent the death of others. That's why this is a big deal. Dig deep into your well of altruism. Or just suck it up. Either way, do your part so that this blows over.
- Go to the grocery store at off hours, and try to plan your trips ahead, so you don't have to go more than once weekly.
- Check in on your neighbors. Some people will have a harder time preparing for this than others. We are all in this together, and we need to take care of one another.
- Follow the directives of credible sources--do not give credence to those spreading disinformation.
- Dr. Anthony Fauci is the country's leading infectious disease expert, and has been the director of NIAID since 1984, serving multiple administrations, both Republican and Democratic alike. He is providing clearheaded facts and direction at a time when they can be hard to discern from nonsense.
- The CDC's website has a wealth of information about COVID-19, from prevention and symptom recognition, to instruction on care for others suffering from the virus, to the latest case updates.
- The WHO has an emergency website up and running providing travel advice, global updates, and even mythbusters about the virus.
Be well out there. Stay home. Take up a new hobby. Paint, learn to crochet. Do puzzles with your kids. Read that book you kept telling yourself you didn't have time for. Play a game with your roommate. Do virtual hangouts with grandparents or distant relatives.
Don't panic. We'll get through this.