Healthy Aging

About the Coronavirus

Note:  this is a fast moving story, so keep current by checking the sources mentioned throughout this article.  As of Monday morning, media reports now say 80+ deaths, more than 2,800 cases and 59 recovered from the virus.  

Monday morning reveals five confirmed cases in the US of the novel coronavirus: in Chicago, Washington State, Maricopa County, AZ; Los Angeles County CA and Orange County, CA. (The name, corona, was given because the virus, when viewed under a microscope, looks like a corona or halo. A novel coronavirus is one that hasn’t yet been found in people.)

As of Monday, Jan. 27, about 100 samples from 26 states have been sent to the CDC for testing. Five have tested positive and 25 have tested negative; the rest are pending.

Cases have also been reported in France, Japan, South Korea, Nepal, VietNam, Singapore and Thailand according to the World Health Organization. In the US, screening of passengers arriving from China are taking place at five airports: Atlanta (ATL), Chicago (ORD), Los Angeles, (LAX) New York city (JFK), and San Francisco (SFO).

While public health officials say the risk to U.S. citizens is low, here is what to know and do to protect yourself: 

What is the novel coronavirus(2019-nCoV)?

A coronavirus belongs to a large family of viruses, the CDC says. Some, like the common cold,   cause respiratory illness in people; others spread among camels, cats, bats or other animals. Sometimes animal coronaviruses can evolve, jumping from animals to people and then spreading between people. That was the case with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which originated in 2003 in Asia and led to a global outbreak until 2004. That was also the case with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and then spreading to other countries, including the U.S. 

In those illnesses, when person-to-person transmission happened, experts believe it did so via respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. However, the situation with regard to the 2019-nCoV is not yet completely understood. Early on, patients had some link to a large seafood and animal market, the CDC says, so this virus may have originated in animals. 

Symptoms include fever, cough and breathing troubles. However, some people have had mild illness and don’t stay in the hospital long. For others, it has proven fatal.  The symptoms appear as few as 2 days after exposure to as many as 14 days later, the CDC says.  However, most recent reports indicate that the virus can be spread while the victim is asymptomatic.

How worried should people in the U.S. be?

According to the CDC, the confirmation about limited person-to-person spread in Asia raises the level of concern, ”but CDC continues to believe the risk of 2019-nCoV to the American public at large remains low at this time.”

And what about the risk to older adults? Generally, as we age, our immune system does not work as well. However, it’s not so much about age as general health, says Aaron Glatt, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Mt. Sinai South Nassau, New York. “I don’t think a healthy 65-year-old is any more at risk than a healthy 55-year-old,” he says. However, any adult with underlying conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or other problems, they will probably do worse if infected, he says. “It’s not the age alone, it’s the underlying illness that may come with age.”

Amira Roess, PhD, MPH, professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, says it is important to put the risk in perspective.  “What I would be more concerned about [in the U.S] is influenza. I’d make sure I had an up-to-date flu shot.”

However, to miminize risk, follow these suggestions from the WHO, including avoiding close contact (six feet or less) with anyone with fever or cough.

What happens when a case is detected?

There is no specific medicine for this infection, so the care is supportive, such as pain and fever relief.  Public health officials also contact ”close contacts” of the patients, such as those who have been within six feet of the patient.

Is there hope for a treatment?

Yes, according to Andrew Mesecar, PhD, head of the department of biochemistry at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, who is studying the Wuhan novel coronavirus and previously studied the SARS and MERS viruses. “SARS and Wuhan are sort of twin viruses,” he says. “They are not identical, but more like fraternal twins. They have a lot more similarities to each other than to MERS.” 

The genome for the Wuhan virus was made public by Chinese researchers, he says. He is studying compounds that he believes will work against this virus, but acknowledges those compounds are a long way from market.

Where to look for updates?

The number of cases has been changing quickly, but two organizations post information frequently.

The World Health Organization posts updates via its situation report and advice on minimizing risk.

The CDC has extensive information and updates. 

Track the spread with this constantly updated map here.

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

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