A Guide to What to Know About COVID-19

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, so does misinformation. Here, you can find facts about the virus and infection it causes

ince Saturday, the United States has reported its first six known COVID-19-related deaths, all in the Seattle area, prompting Washington state Governor Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency. On Sunday, both Rhode Island and New York announced their first probable cases of coronavirus, making them the second and third states on the east coast (after Massachusetts).

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain that the immediate health risk posed by COVID-19 remains low for the general American public, Nancy Messonnier, director of the organization’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, has warned that the disease’s spread throughout the country is “not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen.”

As the coronavirus—now officially named SARS-CoV-2—spreads, so too has misinformation, stymieing efforts to educate and protect the global community. Many questions about the virus and the disease remain unanswered. Thanks in part to a solid understanding of other types of coronaviruses that have plagued us in the past, researchers are quickly homing in on COVID-19’s potential impacts and identifying some of the most important preventative measures people can take. Here’s a quick rundown of what we have learned so far.

What exactly is COVID-19?

First, let’s get some terms straight. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that’s spreading; COVID-19 is the disease it causes. Although most media reports have used the term “coronavirus” to describe SARS-CoV-2, the term is, by itself, not very informative.

Ccoronaviruses comprise an entire branch of the virus family tree that includes the disease-causing pathogens behind SARS, MERS and several variants of the common cold. Using “coronavirus” to refer to a potentially dangerous viral strain is a little bit like saying “mammal” when you mean “lion,” technically accurate, but not specific.

The fact that this new virus belongs to the coronavirus group, however, is telling, as humans have encountered plenty of these pathogens before. Named for the spiky, crown-like fringe that shrouds each viral particle—giving them a “coronated” appearance—coronaviruses tend to target the respiratory systems of bats and other mammals, as well as birds. More often than not, the viruses remain restricted to their wild hosts. But occasionally, they make the hop into humans, as occurred with the 2003 SARS and 2012 MERS outbreaks, both of which likely originated in bats.

The animal source of SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be pinpointed definitively. Given the history, bats remain a probable culprit, with some researchers suspecting the pangolin—an endangered mammal prized on the black market for its scales—as a potential intermediary, reports Joel Achenbach for the Washington Post.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19, and how is it transmitted?

Like other coronaviruses, the COVID-19 virus infiltrates the airways of its hosts. At worst, these pathogens can cause severe forms of viral pneumonia, which in some cases leads to death. Though researchers caution that numbers could shift as the outbreak progresses, the new coronavirus’s fatality rate appears to be around 2 percent. That’s a small fraction of the 10 and 35 percent figures reported for SARS and MERS, respectively.

The vast majority of COVID-19 cases—about 80 percent—appear to be mild, causing a spate of cold-like symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath and fever. Many people are suspected to carry the virus without presenting any symptoms. As physicians continue to identify more of these less-severe cases, which are more difficult to detect, the COVID-19 death rate may drop closer to 1 percent or even below it, reports Denise Grady for the New York Times.

That said, in the few months since it was first reported in China’s Hubei province, COVID-19 has killedabout 3,000 people. That’s more than SARS (about 770 deaths) and MERS (about 850 deaths) combined. COVID-19’s death rate suggests the virus is more contagious than these predecessors, as well as most strains of the distantly related influenza virus, according to the Times. (According to the CDC, severe cases of the flu lead to at least 140,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year out of a total of more than 9 million cases of influenza documented annually. With an average of 12,000 deaths each year, influenza’s death rate is about 0.1 percent.)

A reported 2,873 deaths have occurred in Hubei province alone. According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19’s death rate increases with age, with the highest mortality rate of 21.9 percent occurring among people over 80 years of age. Those with underlying medical issues including respiratory and heart conditions, as well as smokers, are among those at highest risk, reports Allison Aubrey at NPR. Despite some reports to the contrary, children can be infected, but appear less vulnerable. Importantly, a multitude of factors—including many that scientists don’t yet understand—can affect how a given person tolerates an infection.

The virus is capable of moving directly from person to person through droplets produced by coughs or sneezes that travel through the air to settle directly on skin or frequently touched surfaces, like doorknobs or cell phones. After a person is exposed, symptoms can take weeks to appear, if they do at all. Those who carry the virus without showing signs of illness can still spread the disease.

How can I protect myself and others?

To avoid infection, the CDC recommends the same preventative actions one should follow during flu season. The top tip? Wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating, after using the bathroom, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Though soap doesn’t destroy viruses, it plays a big role in dislodging them from skin. If you cannot wash your hands, the CDC notes that alcohol-based sanitizers are a decent second option as long as the sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol. If your hands are visibly dirty, hand sanitizer will not be effective. (Some sanitizers labeled “anti-bacterial” contain only antibiotics, which will not protect against viruses.)

Based on preliminary estimates of contagiousness, those infected with SARS-CoV-2 are expected to infect two or three more people on average, according to WHO. If someone is already sick, wearing a face mask can reduce the spread of disease. However, most face masks, including loose-fitting surgical masks, are not effective at protecting individuals from respiratory diseases. Even medical-grade N95 masks, named for their ability to filter 95 percent of airborne particles, are difficult to use without training and won’t be airtight unless they are professionally fit-tested, says Timothy Brewer, an epidemiologist at UCLA, to Washington Post. Ultimately, N95 masks should be reserved for health workers and those who suspect they may have fallen ill.

Above all, don’t panic, Brewer tells Washington Post. While many media outlets have framed the current situation as one that does not “yet” warrant panic, at no point will excessive anxiety or rash behavior help contain the pathogen’s spread. Infection is by no means a death sentence, and should not be treated as one. “Don’t let fear and emotion drive the response to this virus,” Brewer says.

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