As the coronavirus outbreak originating in Wuhan, China continues to grow both in size and geographic scope, measures are being taken internationally and locally to contain the epidemic.
The total number of confirmed cases stands at 34,886 as of Feb. 8, the vast majority of which are in China, according to the World Health Organization. Over 288 cases have been confirmed in 24 countries outside of China, including 12 cases in the United States.
Because the outbreak is currently concentrated in China, people in this area are at very low risk provided they have not traveled to China, Katherine Wells, director of Public Health in the City of Lubbock, said. It is recommended to delay all non-essential travel to mainland China.
“The people at highest risk are those that have traveled to China within the last 14 days, and in order to be infected with the coronavirus, you have to have very close contact with somebody else that was sick, and currently all of those cases are in China with a small handful here in the United States,” Wells said.
The coronavirus, formally named the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), has been spreading since mid-December when the virus was first recognized in Wuhan, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The virus itself is a new type of coronavirus, which actually refers to a family of viruses, Wells said.
“This (coronavirus) is one that we have not seen before, and that’s why it can be spread so easily because nobody’s immune to it yet,” she said.
Other outbreaks have occurred due to coronaviruses, such as the Middle East Respiratory Virus (MERS) virus in Saudi Arabia and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Virus primarily in Southeast Asia, Dr. Richard Lampe, a pediatric infectious disease physician and chairman of the the Department of Pediatrics at the Tech Health Sciences Center, said.
“They caused some serious disease, but through control measures, those were controlled in the areas they started,” he said.
The novel coronavirus has no distinctive symptoms, he said. It typically manifests as respiratory illness, which is largely characterized by cough and fever. However, there may also be people with the virus who exhibit no symptoms but can pass the virus along.
The virus is spread from person-to-person with close contact, about 6 feet, according to the CDC. Spread is thought to occur via respiratory droplets produced in coughs or sneezes.
Additionally, the virus may potentially spread from inanimate objects, Lampe said. An individual may wipe their nose and touch a doorknob before another person touches the same surface and then makes contact with their nose, mouth or eyes.
It is unknown if people are contagious before or after developing symptoms, or both, he said.
“If it’s like other respiratory viruses, you might have it a day or two before you get the symptoms, and then as you get over it, you still might have it, but you have it less, and there may be some people who don’t even know they’re sick when they get it, and they get over it and they might be able to transmit it to others,” he said.
The novel coronavirus is not as contagious as other respiratory diseases, such as measles, he said. It is comparable to a particularly bad year of influenza.
“If I had (the novel coronavirus), I might give it to two people,” he said. “If I had measles, and everyone around me was susceptible, I might give it to as many as nine to 18 other people.”
Those most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus are the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions such as lung disease, he said. While the fatality rate for the coronavirus is at approximately two percent, those individuals are at a higher risk.
“The specifics of that are still being determined, but if you’re an otherwise healthy person, chances are you will handle this well,” he said. “If you have some underlying medical condition or are older, you could be at risk.”
To protect Americans from the outbreak, the United States government has implemented travel restrictions. According to the CDC, foreign nationals who have visited China in the last 14 days are not permitted to enter the country. American citizens, lawful permanent residents and their families will be allowed to enter the country, but will be redirected to one of 11 airports for health screenings.
The local public health department is also continuing to monitor the case, Wells said.
“You know, the health department staff listen to daily phone calls and updates on the virus,” she said. “We also have plans in place through our emergency preparedness group of what we would do if you know we had a traveler arrive here or somebody that was a case or a suspected case.”
In general, Lampe said he is optimistic the novel coronavirus’ fatality rate will continue to remain low or get lower. The right people are working on the issue, and the right notification systems are in place.
“We are in good shape,” he said. “We’ve got a great local health department in Lubbock; we’ve got a marvelous state heath department in the state of Texas in Austin, and the Centers for Disease Control is right up to speed. They’ve already produced information on this. They’re distributing it. They do the tests. They are on top of this.”
More information on the ongoing outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus is available at cdc.gov.