On Tuesday, health officials warned America that Americans should prepare for their lives to be at least temporarily upended by the coronavirus, admitting that an epidemic is possible.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier told reporters that “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country anymore but a question of when this will happen.”
“We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” she continued.
She suggested schools prepare for the possibility of teaching smaller classes or switching to an online classroom format. Likewise, workplaces should consider replacing in-person meetings with online conferences and increase remote options for employees.
In times like this, it’s easy to feel trapped between wanting to take the threat seriously while also avoiding the temptation to panic. The best way to react is to prepare with real information, gleaned from data. So here’s what we know.
What Is It?
The coronavirus is actually a family of viruses, the effects of which can range from symptoms similar to the common cold to more serious iterations like SARS, MERS and COVID-19 — the newly discovered disease that first popped up in Wuhan, China last year.
COVID-19 is contagious, though much remains unknown about exactly how it spreads. Those infected may feel respiratory symptoms or something similar to a fever. COVID-19 has been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization and it has claimed some 2,600 lives so far.
How Serious Is It?
“The evolution of the outbreak and further development of transmission, these are of grave concern,” says Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) health emergencies program.
Preliminary estimates suggest COVID-19 is only lethal for about two percent of those infected, though medical experts are still learning more about how to treat the disease. The elderly and people with compromised immune systems seem to be at greater risk of a severe case of COVID-19, but the majority of people infected by the virus will experience relatively mild symptoms.
What Are the Symptoms?
COVID-19 may appear as a cold or a fever, causing a cough or shortness of breath. In severe cases, COVID-19 may cause pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome.
But frequently, there may be no symptoms at all. One of the difficulties of containing COVID-19 is actually how relatively not deadly it is. Carriers of the disease may never realize they even have it or only be dimly aware of what they consider to be a slight cold — the 14 Americans who tested positive on a cruise ship in Japan had no idea they were even sick. But those people could inadvertently pass the disease along to someone who isn’t as lucky
Can It Be Treated?
The coronavirus is like the cold in that no existing medicine will cure or prevent it. Appropriate care may alleviate some of the symptoms and medical care should be administered if symptoms worsen.
The best prevention for the moment is the sort of cleanliness habits you learned in kindergarten. Regularly wash your hands with warm water and soap. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Handle food with extra care, especially if you’re preparing a dish with raw meat, eggs or milk. If you have a cold — even what feels like a mild one — stay indoors and avoid contact with others until it passes. If your job gives you sick days, use them generously.
What’s Being Done About It?
The race for a vaccine is on and the Chinese government has gone great lengths to contain the outbreak, with citywide lockdowns that have affected 51 million people across the country.
The process of making a vaccine can be long and frustrating, full of false starts (there’s a great longread at The Atlantic about it). The U.S. is starting the process at a disadvantage. The White House’s pandemic response chain of command didn’t survive recent budget cuts and President Donald Trump’s budget slashed three billion dollars from global health programs, another three billion from National Institutes of Health and another 16 percent of the Center for Disease Control’s budget. Trump has requested $2.5 billion from Congress to help contain a potential outbreak in the U.S., though Senators from both parties have questioned if that will be enough.
But Manuel Martin, a medical innovation and access adviser with Doctors Without Borders, told The Atlantic that there’s hope, particularly from Norway’s Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI). “CEPI is absolutely promising, and we really hope that it will be successful in producing a novel vaccine,” he says, but cautions that the medical community is “waiting to see how CEPI’s commitments play out in practice.”
How Can We Help?
The first and best thing you can do is remain levelheaded. Maintain basic hygiene practices and encourage others to do the same. If you catch a cold, don’t be a hero. Take a sick day. You’ll be doing yourself, the people around you and the medical professionals fighting to contain the coronavirus a big favor.
The fact that COVID-19 first appeared in China has led to an uptick in xenophobia against Chinese people, resulting in boycotts of Chinese restaurants, racist attacks on Chinese individuals and online misinformation. As always, such attacks can be denounced with courage, truth and compassion.
Pray for health care workers, especially those overseas in countries with limited resources. Sustained exposure to the virus can be extra dangerous, and many professionals are going to have to choose between putting their own lives on the line and doing their job to help others.