As friends left a party today, they offered an elbow bump rather than a hug. That’s just one of many symptoms of how fear of the coronavirus has affected our daily lives. So for all of my friends and family who are not news junkies, here’s the latest and most reliable information I have found on the present state of the coronavirus in the United States.
The first coronavirus (Covid-19) death in the United States was reported today, February 29: a 50-something man in the EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, Washington. Two other people in LifeCare Center, a Kirkland, WA long-term care facility, have tested positive, one a resident reported in serious condition and one a health worker reported in stable condition. In the LifeCare Center, 27 of 108 residents and 25 of 180 employees have reported symptoms of the disease. Seattle public health authorities say they are being tested, and that they expect more people to be confirmed with coronavirus by the testing. None of these individuals has traveled abroad recently. Three other people in Washington State have tested positive: one a high school student with no travel abroad, and two others who had traveled to South Korea or China.
Vice President Mike Pence, named by Trump to head the response to coronavirus, responded by announcing increased travel restrictions on Iran, and “urging Americans to not travel to the areas in Italy and the areas South Korea.”
“All local cases announced Saturday were acquired through “community transmission” in the Seattle area, said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. That means none of the patients had traveled overseas.”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency on Saturday.
What is Coronavirus and How Does It Spread?
Novel coronavirus, which means a new virus in the coronavirus family, has been named Covid-19. The virus has infected more than 80,000 people in China, where it was first diagnosed.
Symptoms of coronavirus are similar to cold or flu symptoms, including fever, congestion in the lungs, and muscle aches. Many people get only mild infections, and never seek medical assistance or diagnosis, so the full extent of the virus is not known.
As of February 29, more than 86,000 coronavirus cases were reported in 57 countries.
Coronavirus spreads by coughs and sneezes, when aerosolized droplets come in contact with people near the infected person; by close personal contact, such as shaking hands; by touching something with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes; and by fecal contamination. Symptoms seem to appear two days to two weeks after exposure.
“There are simple things you can do to help keep yourself and others healthy.
- Wash your hands often 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.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.”
What We Don’t Know and Why We Don’t Know It
Until Friday, U.S. health officials only authorized testing for people who had traveled overseas. On Friday, the CDC authorized testing even for people who had not traveled. That means we can expect to see a lot more diagnoses in the week ahead.
The first test kits released by the CDC in early February were unreliable. That is a serious problem, as Pro Publica reported on February 28:
“The lack of a reliable test prevented local officials from taking a crucial first step in coping with a possible outbreak — “surveillance testing” of hundreds of people in possible hotspots. Epidemiologists in other countries have used this sort of testing to track the spread of the disease before large numbers of people turn up at hospitals….
“The CDC announced on Feb. 14 that surveillance testing would begin in five key cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. That effort has not yet begun….
“Update, Feb. 29, 2020: On Saturday, the FDA announced an “accelerated policy … to achieve more rapid testing capacity in the United States,” allowing academic hospital labs capable of performing high-quality testing to develop and begin using their own tests to detect COVID-19.”
In 2018, the Trump administration shut down the U.S. team responsible for responding to a pandemic and ended U.S. support for epidemic prevention activities in 39 out of 49 countries, including China. These actions make the U.S. response to coronavirus both confused and delayed.
Lies and Misinformation
A wide variety of lies and misinformation about the coronavirus have been amplified over social media. U.S. State Department officials blame Russian-linked social media accounts for spreading conspiracy theories that the United States is behind the outbreak or that the CIA manufactured the virus as a biological weapon. On the other hand, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) repeated equally false rumors that the Chinese government manufactured the virus in a lab.
Trump called the coronavirus the Democrats’ newest hoax at a campaign rally on February 28, but denied that he meant it on February 29. He said only 22 people in the United States were ill with the virus on February 29, although the actual number exceeded 70 on that day. These statements continue his efforts to minimize the seriousness of the coronavirus, which he has called “a problem that’s going to go away.” He has also said a vaccine is “very close,” though experts say a vaccine is likely to be at least a year away.
Trump named Vice-President Mike Pence to head the U.S. response to coronavirus and then Pence’s team gave orders that no one in the government, including public health officials, was allowed to make any statement unless they first cleared it with his press secretary. That quickly led to cancellations:
“Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) on Friday said the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was told to ‘stand down’ and not appear on five Sunday morning talk shows to discuss the coronavirus.”
What to Expect
The fatality rate for the coronavirus seems to be somewhere around two percent. For comparison, the fatality rate for the flu is about one tenth of one percent. That’s still a lot of people: the CDC estimates that 29 million people in the United States have had the flu so far this year, and that 16,000 have died from it.
Elderly people and people with underlying health problems are at the greatest risk from coronavirus.
How many people will get coronavirus? That’s very hard to predict.
Some past pandemic viruses have had serious and dramatic symptoms and have made everyone very sick. That made them easy to diagnose and count. Because coronavirus symptoms may be mild, it is likely to be underreported. It is also likely that many people who have mild cases will continue to go to work or school or theaters or shopping malls, spreading the virus as they go.
The bottom line: do all you can to protect yourself. Wash your hands—frequently, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. If you have cold or flu symptoms, stay at home. And prepare:
“Think about the threat of a possible outbreak in your community the way you’d think about a big snowstorm or a hurricane. If it never hits, great. But if it does, you’ll be glad you prepared.
“Don’t hoard, but do stock your cupboards with some extra food and cleaning supplies. Each time you grocery shop, buy a few extra items. Shelf-stable foods such as beans and rice are good options. Also, utilize your freezer to preserve foods, everything from meats and vegetables to cooked grains and bread. Think about having enough on hand to last a few weeks.
- “Check the medicine cabinet to ensure you have basic medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
- “Think about a backup plan if schools were to close during an outbreak.
- “If you take a daily prescription medication, have as much of a supply on hand as possible.
- “Ask your employer about a work-from-home option.”