Five Things You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

(Note that this information is current as of March 2, 2020.)

Turn on any television or radio station or visit any news site, and you’ll find the latest about the coronavirus dominating the headlines.

Officially referred to as COVID-19, this virus was first reported in humans in Wuhan, China in late December of 2019 and is believed to have originated in bats. It is part of the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which both have been cause for concern in the past.

Today, the COVID-19 strain has spread beyond China to more than 60 other countries, including the United States. As of the end of February, close to 90,000 people have tested positive for this virus and more than 2,900 have died (with most of these deaths in China). This has sparked widespread concern and has left many Americans wondering how best to protect themselves and their families. 

Dr. Sheila Nolan, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Boston Children Health Physicians (BCHP), points out that this is an evolving situation and things are changing rapidly. But there are some facts that are important for patients and clinicians to know.

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Key Information about the Coronavirus

  • Many people with the coronavirus probably won’t get very sick. From confirmed cases, we know that 85 percent have only mild or moderate illness.  We are learning more every day that many people may actually remain asymptomatic (no signs of illness) or have very mild “common cold” symptoms and likely have not been counted in official case totals. Therefore, official estimates of the disease may be artificially low.  This means that the number of people with the coronavirus who have died may be a smaller proportion of the total affected than it looks like. “There is a two to four percent mortality rate based on reported positive cases in Wuhan, China, where the epidemic started and their health care system became quickly overwhelmed.  In other areas of China, the mortality rate has been reported at less than one percent, but the percentage may be much lower if you consider the potential of many more cases that are not reported,” Dr. Nolan  points out. So to put this into perspective, she believes that the death rate of COVID-19 may be similar to influenza and is much lower than SARS and MERS.

  • So far, children don’t seem to be significantly affected by COVID-19, yet people in their 60 and older with comorbidities (other medical conditions) could be at increased risk of getting very sick. “There’s very little data on the disease in children. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that only two percent of cases have been in people less than 20 years old.  We are not sure yet whether it’s because kids are not getting the infection or because their symptoms are not as severe,” Dr. Nolan says. “The takeaway is that while there’s no need at this point for parents to panic about their children becoming severely sick, it’s very important to keep sick kids away from grandparents and older adults who have other risk factors, since they are the more vulnerable population,” she adds.

  • There are several medications being studied to treat — and even prevent — COVID-19. Existing anti-viral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDs, Ebola, SARS and MERS are currently being explored in clinical trials to test their effectiveness. New drugs and vaccines to protect against COVID-19 are also in development. This means that people may soon have some options to keep them from getting sick, or to help them recover faster if they do get the virus.

  • While there’s been much focus on the coronavirus, for most people the likelihood of contracting the influenza (flu), currently remains higher. In fact, this has been a very severe flu season and many people have ended up in the hospital with complications. Further, people who get the flu could be susceptible to getting other illnesses, including COVID-19. “If you have the flu and get another infection on top of it, you could potentially have a harder recovery,” Dr. Nolan says. “If you haven’t gotten the flu shot yet, you should get it now. It doesn’t fully prevent you from getting the flu but it can prevent you from dying from it,” she stresses, adding that many pediatricians don’t always discuss this crucial fact with parents and patients. She points out that about fifty percent of kids who died of the flu this season were previously healthy and in most cases, they didn’t get the flu shot, calling attention to the utmost importance of this step.

  • It’s too soon to know exactly what the course of the coronavirus will be, according to Dr. Nolan. Some scientists believe that it could follow a seasonal pattern of spreading mostly in winter months and disappear like the flu in the spring once the weather warms up. But there is also the possibility that it could continue to spread through spring and summer months. Scientists don’t yet know for sure how the virus will act. 

Be Proactive to Prevent — or Treat — COVID-19

The best way to protect yourself, your children — and if you’re a clinician, your patients — from the COVID-19 is to practice good respiratory hygiene. “Cover your cough, throw away used tissues and wash your hands thoroughly and frequently using soap and hot water [scrubbing your entire hand and nail beds for 20 seconds]. Also stay home when you are sick and don’t send sick kids to school,” Dr. Nolan says. In addition, she points out that it’s important to keep a realistic view of the situation.

“Keep in mind that the vast majority of people who get this virus will have mild symptoms and will recover quickly,” she says.

To stay on top of the latest developments in the spread of COVID-19, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. Also stay-up-date with all of your local and state health departments’ directions.