Doubtless you’ve heard that lots of people are getting sick in China from a new virus, referred to as “2019-nCoV” or “novel coronavirus.” Several thousand people in and near the city of Wuhan have fallen ill, and at least several dozen have died. The news is full of scary stories, pictures of people in “space suit” protective gear, and experts discussing the many and various outcomes that might stem from this outbreak.
As of Tuesday, five people in the United States have tested positive for the virus, none of whom were in Virginia. The situation is extremely fluid, and will continue to evolve over the upcoming days and weeks. That said, there are things you can (and should) do right now.
• Be aware, but don’t panic. This virus is a newly recognized (hence the “novel” designation) member of the coronavirus family, which causes respiratory ailments from the common cold to severe, life-threatening pneumonia. The “SARS” (in Asia) and “MERS” (in the Middle East) outbreaks you’ve probably heard of, were also coronaviruses. Because this virus is novel, we don’t know a lot about how it will act, specifically how sick it will make people, how easy it is to spread, and what groups are at the highest risk for severe disease. Over the next few weeks, we will better discern how this virus will behave, but it will take time. Stay aware, but there’s no need to stay glued to cable news. Your best source for reliable information for any disease outbreak is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/. The Virginia Department of Health also offers a wealth of up-to-date information specific to Virginia at www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/.
• Now is not the time to travel to China. The CDC has recommended avoiding any non-essential travel to China.
• If you’ve been in China in the last month, and you get a fever and a bad cough, you may have the new virus. Don’t panic, but do seek medical attention promptly. Key point: CALL AHEAD before you show up, or wait in the car until someone goes in and advises the practice of your symptoms and travel history. This will allow the staff to provide you with a surgical mask and take you to an appropriate room for care, while reducing the risk of infecting others.
• Remember the guidelines for flu prevention and follow them. Coronavirus typically causes a respiratory illness, so it’s likely to spread the same way as colds and flu: droplets spewed into the air by coughs and sneezes and then inhaled by the next person to walk through that space. Because of this, the recommendations to prevent flu apply here.
• Wash your hands frequently, and cover coughs and sneezes. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. If you cough or sneeze on your hands, wash them. Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, or mouth, as many viruses can be passed by direct contact. Clean or disinfect frequently used surfaces at home. Don’t bother wearing a surgical mask if you’re not sick — it won’t help. Standard surgical masks only stop outgoing germs, not incoming ones.
• If you do get sick, stay home, except for medical care. Especially avoid contact with the elderly, pregnant women, those under 6 months of age, or persons with chronic diseases.
• Seek medical attention where appropriate. Anyone with any respiratory infection who experiences trouble breathing or severe symptoms should seek immediate medical care. In infants and young children, being listless, turning ashen or bluish, or being unable to feed due to rapid breathing should prompt immediate medical attention as well.
• It’s not too late to get your flu shot. The flu shot won’t do any good against the coronavirus, but keep things in perspective: to date, there have only been a handful of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S., but more than 400 people have died from complications of pneumonia and flu in Virginia alone.
• Practice healthy habits. Eat nutritious foods and drink water. Aerobic exercise (when well), staying hydrated, adequate sleep (7-8 hours per night for adults), and avoiding unnecessary stress can help your body resist illness.
Dr. Colin M. Greene is a retired Army family physician who is the director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Lord Fairfax Health District, which serves residents of the City of Winchester and Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah, and Warren counties.