What you should know about coronavirus
By Kristy Bleizeffer Mar 2, 2020
News about the new strain of coronavirus is breaking so quickly it can be difficult to distinguish good information from bad.
“Stay off social media for information about COVID-19,” said Mark Dowell, M.D., medical director of infection control at Wyoming Medical Center and the Natrona County health officer. “The more hysteria it creates, the worse the effects will be. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a website for the public where you can read the latest developments, and that’s where I recommend people get their information.”
If you have reason to believe you have come into contact with COVID-19 (recent travel to a country with an active outbreak or contact with someone who has traveled themselves), please call your doctor's office or clinic before showing up. They will screen you for risk factors and offer medical advice. Screening questions will change as the outbreak spreads to new countries and regions.
Below, Dr. Dowell explains what we know and don’t yet know about COVID-19.
What is the difference between coronavirus and COVID-19?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that are found throughout nature. There are coronaviruses specific to bats and snakes and humans and horses, and other animals. They all have genes that allow them to bind to the individual animal's respiratory cells and to potentially cause disease in the animals. It is the change in the genes that allow them to bind to human cells. There are many coronavirus in the family that can infect humans, but generally they cause the mild common cold. Or, they infect people and cause no symptoms at all.
COVID-19 is the particular strain of coronavirus that is in the news now, and it was named COVID-19 because it was 2019 when it was discovered. Like SARS and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), which are other coronavirus strains, it is new to humans.
We are still trying to figure out where exactly it came from. Like SARS, it probably originated in a rural province in China where they have gathering places of commerce and socialization within close proximity to bats and/or exotic animals. The original theory for COVID-19 is that the strain of coronavirus in bats in Wuhan, China, mutated to infect snakes, and then mutated again to be able to infect humans. That is still a theory.
Humans have not seen this strain of coronavirus before so they don’t have any protection. There’s a lot we don’t know about it and it’s evolving everyday.
How is COVID-19 spread?
The things we are trying to learn now is exactly how contagious it is, which seems to be pretty contagious; how many people get infected and don’t get sick; how easily it spreads within a group setting, whether that be school, whether that be shopping mall or wherever you want to place people.
Right now it seems like it travels a few feet via respiratory droplets, much like the flu. Potentially when someone coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the virus land on a surface and then may live up to several days on that surface.
When I put my hand on this table, I transfer all my bacteria and different organisms from my hand onto the table, and they can live there up to a few days. You can imagine walking into a school, and touching a desk that someone has coughed and sneezed on, and then we all scratch our noses all day long with our hands. Or you’re sitting in class and your classmate coughs and you are close. There are a lot of ways theoretically this can spread.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
If you’ve traveled to an area with an outbreak within two weeks, or been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who has traveled to an outbreak area, you should pay attention to the following symptoms:
- A dry cough
- Shortness of breath
A subset of these people will get rapidly ill, but the majority will just wait the illness out. Remember that many people with these symptoms will just have the common cold, whether it’s caused by another strain of coronavirus or its cousin, rhinovirus.
The main question you should ask: Are you linked to areas where COVID-19 is active, either through travel or through someone who has recently traveled to those areas?
If you do have good reason to suspect your symptoms are caused by COVID-19, you should call your doctor’s office or public health for advice.
Who is most at risk?
While risk of exposure is still low in Wyoming, people most at risk for developing complications from a COVID-19 infection are those with weaker immune systems. These include:
- People 65 and older
- People with chronic medical conditions that weaken their immune systems
- People with COPD and lung disease, chronic heart failure, dialysis patients and others
- Potentially infants
Immunosenescence is the gradual deterioration of a person’s immune system as they age. It’s just not as strong as it used to be when you get older. That’s why we see a high risk of infection issues at the extremes of life. People in their 70s and 80s, their immune system is just a little more senile. The first few months of a baby’s life, they don’t have much of an immune system and depend on their mother’s antibodies through breast milk.
Kids are not dying from COVID-19. Kids have tremendous immune symptoms.
How can people protect themselves?
Do the common sense things you do to prevent the spread of illness of any kind, including the flu:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
- Cover your face when you cough
- Use Kleenex when blowing or wiping your nose so you don’t transfer the germs to other surfaces
- Avoid touching your face as much as you can
- Use the hand gel often
- When you go to grocery store, wipe down the cart first with a disinfectant wipe and use hand gel when you leave
- Stay home if you are sick and keep your children home from school and daycare if they are sick
The respiratory masks disappearing from the store shelves are not good at protecting from this virus because it can live on surfaces for several days. Touching an infected surface and then touching your nose or mouth is more likely to spread it.
Do you expect the virus to spread to Wyoming?
We don’t know. There aren't any cases in surrounding states yet, so being rural does seem to play a role. We just don’t have the concentrated population as other areas. It will probably be slower getting here. I would be surprised if we never had a case in Wyoming. It is popping up in pods much more commonly than SARS did.
There has not been a case in Wyoming. We’ve had a few people under surveillance that have been in China, but nobody has gotten sick. The state health department is having weekly conference calls with local health departments just to stay on top of it. We have mechanisms in place in this county and within the state to test for COVID-19 at the state level. In Natrona County and at Wyoming Medical Center, we have an entire system set up to deal with a highly infectious disease patient, because we were designated an Ebola Assessment Hospital by the Wyoming Department of Health. As part of the designation, WMC has trained for and implemented strict protocols for highly infectious patients and had its plans reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If someone with suspected COVID-19 comes here, we coordinate with the state and we have the correct rooms and correct equipment to manage the patient until the state decides whether we should keep the patient or transfer them to another hospital.
Will there be a vaccine?
They are hoping to have a vaccine in 6 to 12 months if they can work quickly. It depends on how fast you can develop the vaccine, who pays for it, who manufactures it and how you send it out across the world.
This is different than the flu vaccine because you’re aiming at one strain of coronavirus. For the flu vaccine, we’re trying to protect the public against several major strains of flu that are circulating around the world in a particular season. But, even if the flu vaccine is 40 or 50 percent protective during a season, it means it’s making the illness milder, shorter and preventing deaths.
The thing we are not sure about yet with COVID-19 is how it is tricking the immune system, what it is about this virus that allows it to be so aggressive and how you block that with a vaccine.
Where should people go to learn more?
Hysteria comes when you do not have enough information, people anticipate the worst, and everybody is out buying masks, even though most of them don’t do much.
Just pay attention to good news sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization. You’ve got to lean on the science, and you’ve got to let the medical people that are experts lead the way.
People just need to pay attention to information out there from reliable sites, and continue to remember to wash your hands, use the hand gel and clean off surfaces that are used in common areas. If you do this your chances of getting ill are much less.
Dr. Dowell is board certified in infectious disease and is the medical director of Infectious Disease at Wyoming Medical Center. He practices at Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases.