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As officials announced the first deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. and testing ramps up across the country, health experts are warning that more cases are bound to be identified. The general message from Massachusetts health officials has gone quickly from don't panic, but do prepare, to near-daily reminders that we all need to do our part to slow the spread of this virus.
Here are a few tips and answers to some common questions.
What Is The Novel Coronavirus?
The new coronavirus, or novel coronavirus, was first identified in China and is now spreading around the world. It is due to a virus known as 2019 n-CoV, a member of a large group of viruses all known as coronaviruses.
“Until 2003, these pretty much just caused the common cold,” Dr. Stanley Perlman, an immunologist and microbiologist at the University of Iowa, explained in an interview with WBUR.
In 2003, SARS emerged as a deadly, contagious coronavirus that could cause pneumonia-like symptoms. About 10 years later, another coronavirus called MERS emerged in Saudi Arabia and killed roughly a third of people who became infected.
“SARS and MERS tended to get into the deep lungs and cause pneumonia,” Perlman said. “But it wasn’t nearly as contagious. If you could recognize someone had SARS and pneumonia, you could isolate them really fast. That’s how we got rid of it so easily.”
While a lot is still unknown, this 2019 coronavirus appears to be more easily transmitted than SARS or MERS, and it may also be slightly more contagious than some flu strains.
The disease caused by the new coronavirus is called COVID-19.
Do I Need To Worry About Getting The Coronavirus In Mass.?
While health officials first emphasize that the risk for the vast majority of people is low — an estimated 80% will experience only mild or flu-like symptoms — they're also urging residents to take precautions to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Those measures include frequent hand-washing, limiting trips to stores or other places where you might come in contact with many people, avoiding social gatherings and staying home if you feel ill.
Initially, public officials encouraged residents to continue their daily lives, but as the number of recorded cases in Massachusetts grew, they began taking more drastic measures, closing schools, banning gatherings of more than 25 people and closing bars and restaurants to all but takeout and delivery service.
Most of the cases in Massachusetts so far have been linked to a recent Biogen conference, or international travel, but the state has also recorded cases of spread within local communities.
Health experts caution that the number of confirmed cases will grow even more as more people are now being tested. Federal officials have warned that we may begin seeing clusters of illness, such as a nursing home in Washington which appears to be the site of the first coronavirus oubreak in the country.
How Does The Virus Spread?
The novel coronavirus is likely spread in the same way as the flu — through droplets from coughing and sneezing — and direct contact with people who have active infections. Contact with hard surfaces such as door knobs can also spread the disease, although it remains unclear how long the new coronavirus can survive on these surfaces.
How Can I Avoid Getting It?
Health experts advise a simple measure with multiple benefits: wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you come into contact with the virus — or any other virus such as flu or common cold — hand washing is the best way to keep pathogens from infecting you.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers may also help, Perlman said, but they may not work as well for viruses as they do for bacteria.
Health experts also say to avoid contact with sick people, avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, mouth and nose. And try to cough or sneeze into your elbow to reduce the spread of germs to your hands.
If you are ill, stay home to avoid infecting others.
More recently, health officials have also urged everyone to stay home as much as possible and close contact with anyone outside those who live in your home.
Should I Wear A Face Mask?
"Only if you're sick yourself," writes Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Otherwise masks probably don’t do anything to protect you."
Surgical masks don’t create a full seal around your mouth and nose, experts say, but there are masks, known as N95 respirators, that form a tighter seal. These can help prevent infection, but they must be properly fitted to work effectively. And some health experts have warned that improper removal of the masks could actually increase the risk of infection.
Hoarding of masks and other protective equipment could also put health care workers at risk, warns Sax.
"All of us in health care accept that exposure to infection is part of our job. But to do so without the appropriate protective supplies cannot be permitted," he notes. "It is critical that we have access to the specialized N95 masks and other gear, especially during procedures that increase the risk of exposure."
How Dangerous Is Novel Coronavirus?
Like SARS and MERS, the new coronavirus has the potential to cause pneumonia and other complications that can be deadly.
But not for most people. It appears that the vast majority of patients — some 80% — experience only mild symptoms from the infection.
There is currently no drug that treats the new coronavirus. Early studies suggest the mortality rate might be around 2%, which would make it more deadly than the typical flu. However, public health experts warn this is likely to change as infections increase and more becomes known about the virus.
“We could be underestimating and overestimating the number of deaths,” Perlman cautioned. “There may be a huge number of cases we don’t know about -– people who are sick but not diagnosed because they’re just not that sick. Or there might be more deaths with people dying of other causes that we don’t know about.”
So far, it it seems that elderly people and people with other health problems are at highest risk. Children seem to be at a lower risk, possibly because they get lots of colds caused by other coronaviruses, and this may be bolstering their immune response to this new coronavirus.
How Can I Prepare For A Possible Outbreak Of Coronavirus Here?
There are a lot of unknowns, so be ready to adapt, says Dr. Leonard Marcus, co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
"If we want to know what it could look like — because nobody can predict exactly what it's going to look like — just look to China and imagine what it would be like to live in Wuhan, where that was the center of the cases and people were asked to stay in their homes for weeks," Marcus tells WBUR.
He recommends stocking up on essentials such as food, medicines and personal items, enough to last roughly two or three weeks.
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