The coronavirus has hit the United States, and it is spreading. The Center For Disease Control and Prevention believes that the immediate risk for most people of being exposed to the virus is low. CBS News reports that there are now more than 1,600 cases in the United States, and at least 40 people have died of the virus nationwide according to The New York Times. The World Health Organization has formally declared a global pandemic, and President Trump is expected to declare a national emergency.
“That this disease has caused severe illness, including illness resulting in death is concerning, especially since it has also shown sustained person-to-person spread in several places,” the CDC says. In other words, when the virus reaches a community, it can spread quickly. But the CDC also says that there is not widespread circulation in most communities in the United States, yet.
“More cases of COVID-19 are likely to be identified in the United States in the coming days, including more instances of community spread. It’s likely that at some point, widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur. Widespread transmission of COVID-19 would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time.”
And that will be a problem. As Harvard infectious disease epidemiologist and microbiologist Marc Lipsitch recently tweeted, it is “plausible” that 20% – 60% of adults will be infected with the virus.
The speed of the outbreak has important consequences. As Vox reports, epidemiologists fear the health care system becoming overwhelmed by a sudden explosion of illness that requires more people to be hospitalized than the system can handle. In that scenario, more people could die because there won’t be enough hospital beds or ventilators to keep them alive. In other words: let’s say 1,000 people in your city are definitely going to get sick. Your local hospital is more likely to be able to cope with 100 patients with the virus for ten cycles of the virus than it would be able to deal with having 1,000 patients suffering from the virus at once. That’s why it’s important to make an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Vox notes that communities are working to avoid overwhelming their hospitals. These communities are taking protective measures including closing schools, canceling mass gatherings, encouraging working from home, self-quarantine and avoiding crowds; these efforts are all to keep the virus from spreading quickly. Epidemiologists call the strategy to prevent a huge spike in cases, “flattening the curve.”
The Washington Post reports that COVID-19 spreads more easily than SARS did, and is similar to other viruses that cause cold-like symptoms. It appears to be highly transmissible, and since some cases are mild, the disease may be more widespread than current testing numbers suggest. Also, there are reports of people transmitting the virus before they show symptoms. By contrast, SARS spread when people were sick, so it was easier to tell who had the virus, and therefore easier to contain.
The CDC has a guide on how to protect yourself: as many Americans know, you should wash your hands often (and for at least 20 seconds), and you should avoid touching your face with unwashed hands. Cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw the tissue out immediately, and wash your hands afterward. Only wear a facemask if you are sick, do not wear one if you aren’t sick. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily, including tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks. If surfaces are dirty, clean them: Use detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
Here is one way to look at this: if you decide to stop wearing your seatbelt for a week (which we do NOT recommend), the odds that you would get injured or die in a crash would be greater than usual, but would still remain, statistically, quite low. But from the standpoint of a government, when there are millions of people on the road every day, that would add up to many unnecessary deaths. That’s why there are seatbelt rules, fire codes, and other safety regulations. Even if the coronavirus outbreak gets bad, the odds that any particular individual is going to get very sick and die from coronavirus is going to be, generally, relatively low (although it’s important to note that the risk is elevated for seniors, and immuno-compromised). But it’s advisable to take fairly dramatic steps early to slow that curve and reduce the scope of the problem later.