Update March 9, 2020: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that widespread transmission of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. will likely occur. “Current circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic,” the CDC says.
While data so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild, the CDC says, “a report out of China suggests serious illness occurs in 16% of cases. Older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness.”
With an ever-increasing number of international infections, many Chicagoans are facing swirling anxiety about the coronavirus, postponing travel, and fearing for their health and safety. But local health officials say not to panic, as the coronavirus risk is low in Chicago right now, though it will increase.
“Our strong, strong message is the health risk to the general public from novel coronavirus at this time remains low, both in the U.S., across Illinois and here in Chicago,” says Allison Arwady, MD, MPH, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
In fact, U.S. residents have a much greater chance of contracting the flu now than the coronavirus. From Oct. 1, 2019, to Feb. 15, 2020, there have been an estimated 280,000 to 500,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 to 41,000 deaths from the flu in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although the number keeps increasing, the novel coronavirus has caused roughly 109,578 global infections and 3,809 global deaths as of March 9, 2020, according to the World Health Organization. The numbers are significantly lower than for the flu, but health experts are concerned about the new coronavirus because they know much less about it.
Symptoms and how it spreads
Coronavirus is a generic term for a family of viruses with cold-like symptoms that include the SARS virus of 2003 and the MERS virus of 2012. This current outbreak is technically referred to as COVID-19 or novel (new) coronavirus.
“These types of viruses can mutate on their own, or they can recombine with viruses from different species to create novel strains like COVID-19,” says Igor Koralnik, MD, division chief of neuro-infectious diseases and global neurology at Northwestern Medicine.
The COVID-19 infection causes respiratory illness with fever, cough and shortness of breath. Scientists warn that it spreads in close person-to-person contact. Droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze can land in the mouth or nose or on the hands of people nearby (within about 6 feet), according to the CDC.
Symptoms run a wide range — from little to none, up to severe illness and death. While the virus doesn’t discriminate based on age, older adults and those with pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, are more vulnerable to severe illness.
“People infected by these viruses who show no symptoms or minor symptoms have an immune system able to fight the virus,” Koralnik explains. “But the people who become sick often are older, very young or have some debilitating disease.”
Researchers are already working on a vaccine for COVID-19, which “could be available within three months for testing in humans based on reporting from the National Institute of Health,” says Sharon Welbel, MD, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control at Cook County Health.
Otherwise, treatment is symptom-specific, with physicians focusing on alleviating discomfort and fever.
State, county and city public health departments have been monitoring the outbreak since it began and are coordinating extensively on training, communication and monitoring at-risk individuals.
“On an individual level, we’re monitoring anybody with concern for contracting coronavirus,” Arwady says. “We have a list of those folks — people who are recent travelers or people who are contacts of confirmed cases. We’re immediately in touch with anybody who would be at risk.”
The CDC currently monitors individuals who have traveled from China in the past 14 days and relays that information to local health departments. At the state level, the Illinois Department of Public Health coordinates communication and guidance for all local health systems and hospitals across the state, says Ngozi Ezike, MD, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“Even before we had cases in Illinois, we were sending information out to healthcare providers, emergency medical service providers and hospital administrators about this virus and [monitoring] people,” Ezike says.
At the local hospital level, measures are in place to ensure effective isolation procedures and staff safety if any COVID-19 cases emerge.
“I feel incredibly comfortable right now with being able to handle a patient who would come to a Cook County Hospital,” Welbel says. “Infection control nurses are doing an excellent job educating healthcare workers. They’re working very diligently to educate staff on all different shifts. There’s a lot of signage and a lot of communication. Healthcare workers are all trained in how to put on the appropriate personal protective equipment if needed, and we’ve identified special rooms for these patients.”
Stopping the spread
Coronaviruses historically have been brought under control by isolating or quarantining those infected. Isolating those who may have come in contact with the virus can halt its rapid spread, Koralnik says.
“If there are proper public health measures to circumvent the movement of those infected and transmission to the general population, the epidemic dies out by these methods of containment,” he says.
Early identification of the virus and subsequent isolation is important so that an infected individual isn’t in public with the potential of spreading the virus to others, Welbel says. “Quarantine sounds like a bad word, but it really isn’t,” she adds. “It’s just to make sure we’re not spreading the virus.”
What should Chicagoans do?
“The risk of contracting the novel coronavirus for the average Illinoisan and the average person in Chicago is very low,” Ezike says. However, cases internationally are increasing, and its spread in the U.S. is inevitable, CDC officials say. Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind during this outbreak.
- DO stay educated: While the internet has a lot of useful information, check trusted sites like the CDC’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 site to get your updates.
- DO ask questions: Illinois residents are advised to reach out to the local health department if they develop symptoms or have questions about the novel coronavirus. The Chicago Department of Public Health has set up a hotline at 312-746-4835 and an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) to answer any questions city residents have. Similarly, the Illinois Department of Public Health will answer any COVID-19-related questions at 800-889-3931 or by email at email@example.com.
- DO get a flu shot: The coronavirus is not the flu, but it’s important to keep your respiratory system strong and healthy by avoiding the flu. It’s not too late to get a flu shot.
- DO wash your hands regularly: Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
- DO clean surfaces regularly: Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects, countertops and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- DON’T avoid public places or gatherings: With the low odds of contracting the virus, there is no need to disrupt your regular schedule. “The risk is vanishingly small of contracting the virus,” Ezike says. “We want people to be aware, but we don’t want people to be unnecessarily anxious.”
- DON’T wear a face mask: There is currently no medical reason for healthy people to wear a face mask because of the novel coronavirus. The CDC only recommends face masks for people who have a COVID-19 infection or for people taking care of someone with an infection. Wearing a mask can make others uneasy and create a more nervous climate than is warranted.
- DON’T discriminate: While the virus originated in China, “Asian Americans or [people] of Asian descent in the United States are not more likely to be infected,” Koralnik says.
Jim is a writer, fact checker and researcher with over 15 years of experience in the publishing industry.