The respiratory illness coronavirus has spread across the world, and now officials in the US have warned that we might see an outbreak here. As of Tuesday, March 3, 2020 there are 60 confirmed and presumptive cases of people who tested positive for coronavirus in the US, and that could be just the beginning. But how worried should you really be about contracting coronavirus?
With the help of Dr. Tom Moorcroft, an osteopathic physician focused on infectious disease, we discuss the current risk of becoming infected with coronavirus, how to protect yourself and how to stay informed.
How likely are you to get the coronavirus?
As of March 3, 2020, there are 60 confirmed and presumptive cases of coronavirus in the US, and six deaths, with reports coming from 12 US states. These are people who were tested in the US through the public health surveillance systems and does not include people who traveled back to the US after already being tested for the virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 53 cases of people in the US who are being treated for the disease.
Despite those numbers, the WHO maintains that if you haven't traveled to an area where the virus is spreading or come in contact with someone who has it, your risk of getting coronavirus is low.
As of March 3, 2020, the CDC is no longer providing a number for pending cases or cases that tested negative because, per the CDC website, "Now that states are testing and reporting their own results, CDC's numbers are not representative all of testing being done nationwide."
Should Americans be worried about the coronavirus?
According to Moorcroft, "This isn't something you should lose sleep over right now."
As of March 3, 2020, there are 11 confirmed cases of human-to-human transmission in the US, and the CDC and World Health Organization are working to keep the spread of coronavirus under control. The investigation and protection efforts are full-force, from airport entry screenings and travel restrictions to keeping patients in isolation.
In January 2020, the CDC tweeted that the risk of coronavirus to Americans was low. A month later, on February 29, 2020, the director of the CDC reiterated that sentiment, tweeting that "most people in the US have little immediate risk of exposure to the virus."
How to protect yourself from the coronavirus
For now, just stick to the basics, Moorcroft says. The coronavirus is spread through respiratory vapor, such as when someone sneezes or coughs into the air around you. Influenza viruses and common cold viruses are also spread this way.
"The things you should do to protect yourself from the coronavirus are things you should do every day," he points out. "The no. 1 thing you can do to prevent any respiratory illness is to practice good personal hygiene."
Moorcroft also reiterates the CDC's advice for avoiding coronavirus (and other respiratory diseases):
- Wash your hands with soap or use a hand sanitizer that contains alcohol.
- Sneeze and cough into tissues or the crook of your elbow. If you get mucus or spit on your skin, clean it off right away. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially people exhibiting respiratory symptoms and fever.
- Stay home when you're sick.
- Regularly and thoroughly clean surfaces, such as counter tops and doorknobs, with a disinfectant.
Again, these are all basic protections that should be normal, everyday things. Moorcroft believes that extra protections, like wearing medical masks, aren't really necessary at this point, unless you have the virus or are being investigated for it. "As long as people aren't sneezing, coughing or otherwise depositing their respiratory excretions on you, you should be fine," Moorcroft says.
The CDC and US Surgeon General have both stated that medical face masks aren't necessary for people who aren't at high risk (such as people who have already been in contact with people being treated for coronavirus), and that hand-washing is a better defense against the novel coronavirus.
Washing your hands correctly -- using soap and water and washing for at least 20 seconds -- or using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available, still stands as the best way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, according to the CDC.
On top of basic illness prevention, Moorcroft says the best (and only real) defense against disease is a strong immune system. Your body is better able to fight off illnesses when your immune system is really humming, he explains, and everyone should put in an effort to get theirs into tip-top shape. To do so, get enough quality sleep at night, stay hydrated, minimize overly processed foods, and get enough micronutrients in your diet.
How can I protect myself while traveling?
The CDC has recommended that everyone avoid nonessential travel to China and Chinese officials have closed travel to and from Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province. If you must travel to China, the CDC encourages you first to discuss it with your doctor, avoid other people who are sick and avoid animals and animal markets.
As of Jan. 30, 2020, the WHO advises against all travel to areas where outbreaks have been reported, especially for people who are sick, elderly or immunocompromised.
If you're traveling anywhere, you should practice basic hygiene that can help keep you from getting sick on planes.
Even though the risk is still low for most Americans right now, Moorcroft encourages everyone to stay armed with the facts. You shouldn't discount or disregard the virus completely just because you live in the US, but don't get overly stressed or anxious about it either.
And if you really want to know what's going on, Moorcroft recommends monitoring the CDC website, where officials regularly post updates on coronavirus happenings. It's easy to get swept up in the ever-increasing amount of information available online, as well as the fear factor and misinformation from social media, and your best bet is to get your information from the actual health organizations that are investigating the issue firsthand.
"I hope that people will feel empowered by knowing the facts," Moorcroft says, "and say, 'I have access to the information, I know how to take care of my body and I can keep myself safe.'"
Editors' note, March 3, 2020: This article was originally published on Jan. 28, 2020 and has been updated with new information from the CDC about the number of cases in the US, as well as with new information about the CDC's position on how to best protect yourself from the coronavirus and the WHO's travel safety recommendations.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.