Understanding Coronavirus

In recent weeks, you’ve likely seen any number of alarming headlines about the new human coronavirus officially named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization. Reports of increasing fatalities are enough to make any parent anxious, especially as we learn of the disease’s emergence in the United States.

With so many news sources—both reputable and otherwise—covering the virus’s spread, it’s difficult to know what to believe. Much of what we see posted on social media is not accurate or not up-to-date, and even the best news sources can be confusing. Here’s what your pediatricians would like you to know:

In the United States, you and your family are still more at risk from the flu.  

You probably hear scary statistics about flu-related deaths every year, but we’re more accustomed to this impact than a virus we know little about. What the flu and COVID-19 have in common is that they may be manageable on their own, but they can cause serious complications like pneumonia that require emergency attention. If you or anyone in your family have not gotten a flu vaccine, it’s not too late. Take this small step to prevent an illness you’re much more likely to catch.

Take all the same precautions you would to avoid any illness. 

Your best defenses are washing hands regularly and frequently, disinfecting commonly-touched surfaces such as doorknobs, not sharing food, beverages, or anything else that touches the mouth, and avoiding contact with anyone showing signs of being unwell. “These practices apply to all illnesses at any time of year, but especially during the winter months when bacteria and viruses spread easily,” says Dr. Eleanor Braun of South Louisville Pediatrics. “If you or someone in your household feel sick, avoid putting others at risk by calling your doctor’s office for guidance and staying home until you recover.”

As you read or listen to updates, consider the statistics with a grain of salt.As of February 12, officials in the Hubei Province of China where the outbreak began in Wuhan have decided to consider a “clinical” diagnosis, meaning individuals who may have tested negative for the virus but show all of the symptoms will now be classified as confirmed cases. This allows patients to receive standardized treatment sooner because they won’t be waiting on testing to confirm illness. With this protocol in place, we can expect to hear much higher numbers of people affected.  

Finally, many of the people confirmed to have the virus are health care workers exposed while they were doing their jobs.

Every day, we’re hearing new reports of fatalities caused by COVID-19. However, in the early days of any epidemic, death rates appear inflated because many mild cases go unreported. If 1000 people are confirmed to have the virus and 100 of them die, the death rate is a nerve-wracking 10%. But there are many other people with mild cold-like symptoms who recover on their own and never get a formal diagnosis.

Until health officials have a better understanding of the virus and how it spreads, they are taking extreme measures that include quarantines and travel bans. 

Because we don’t have prior experience with this virus, no one knows yet if it will “die down” like cold and flu season. We do know that it’s spread by exposure, so containment measures are currently the best way to prevent additional cases.

COVID-19 is not the same virus as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), though they are both coronaviruses with overlapping symptoms.

Coronaviruses, named for the crown-like spikes on their surfaces, are actually a family of viruses that can cause mild respiratory illnesses such as the common cold. In some cases, the viruses are responsible for lower respiratory tract illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis. These complications are more responsible for fatalities than the virus itself, and mostly among vulnerable populations like the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

Your best resource for accurate, current information is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s web site, which includes a COVID-19 specific page: https://www.cdc.gov/media/dpk/diseases-and-conditions/coronavirus/coronavirus-2020.html

Their data includes an updating total of individuals in the United States confirmed or under investigation for the virus in addition to countless other resources.