The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has been declared a global pandemic. If you listen to the news, you’d believe that this virus is killing everyone and there’s no way to stop it. While there is cause for concern, the picture isn’t so bleak for most of us. Here’s some truth and sanity about COVID-19 coronavirus.
It seems like every day a new and more terrifying story about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 rolls out and more people panic. The news media breathlessly tell us about every detail and spread every nonsense story. All while missing the real point and adding nothing to the solution.
Don’t worry. I’m here to help you understand what you should worry about and what you can ignore or let slide. But first, some background.
What is this thing, anyway? Coronavirus isn’t a single virus, but a family of them, called Coronaviridae. There are more than 30 kinds of coronaviruses. In fact, the common cold is caused by several of them, particularly in winter and early spring. (1)
Most coronaviruses are not dangerous, but there are a few troublemakers. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are two of these. The current coronavirus outbreak is a version of SARS.
The original SARS was the subject of an outbreak between November 2002 and July 2003. While it was concentrated in Southern China, the disease spread to 17 countries, infected nearly 8,100 people, killing 774 of them, according to official numbers. That’s a case fatality rate, or CFR, of 9.6 percent, for those of you keeping score at home.
The current version of SARS has a CFR of somewhere between 2.3 and 3.4 percent, depending on whose statistics you trust. The overwhelming majority of those deaths are among people over 60 and especially those with other comorbidities. In other words, they were older and had other serious health issues. I covered this in detail in yesterday’s piece Death Risk Factors Identified For COVID-19 Coronavirus.
Here’s an encouraging fact. Of the 15,536 people without comorbidities who tested positive in China between early January and February 11, 2020, only 133 of them died. That’s a CFR of just 0.9 percent. By way of reference, the generally accepted CFR for most seasonal flus is about 1 percent overall.
While it is true that COVID-19 is somewhat more likely to cause pneumonic symptoms than the seasonal flu, the likelihood of a healthy individual in nearly any age group dying from COVID-19 is fairly low. If you get the virus and you are healthy, chances are your symptoms will be mild to moderate. Your life will suck for 7 to 14 days, then you’ll heal. Some people who get the virus will experience few to no symptoms.
One real area of concern is the r0 rate of the COVID-19 virus. That’s a measure of how many people each infected person will infect. The seasonal flu has a r0 of 1.5-2, depending on the year and the model used to find the rate. For COVID-19, one study, which used a dynamic, five category patient classification model to extrapolate the r0 estimated it at a whopping 6.49. The average r0 across 14 different studies came in at 3.28. (2)
That means each infected person is likely to infect 3.28 people. 100 infected people can infect 328, who will then infect 1,075 people. You can do the rest of the math from there.
This problem is exacerbated by the reality that the virus has an average symptom incubation time of 5.1 days. (Read this: Symptom Incubation Period For COVID-19 Coronavirus Identified) So people who are asymptomatic may be infected and may spread the virus without knowing it.
Horrible, right? Hang on a minute. This is a trick of language. I just did the same thing to you that the new media is doing. Yes, asymptomatic people may be able to transmit the disease.
However, let’s remember that in the end, we’re dealing with a virus that acts a lot like the flu. Research into whether the flu can be transmitted from asymptomatic people has overwhelmingly found that it doesn’t happen. (3)
Is it possible? Yes. It could be possible. But since viral shedding is necessary for a virus to spread, and shedding is usually associated with the onset of symptoms, it’s unlikely. Not impossible, just unlikely.
What may be possible is for people to have very mild symptoms and spread the virus. We are heading into pollen season here in the eastern US. Lots of people get allergies, with symptoms that can mimic the cold or flu in many respects. Mild COVID-19 symptoms could easily be mistaken for allergy symptoms and ignored. That would allow “asymptomatic” spread of the virus.
So what are the symptoms of COVID-19? Typically, they include a low grade fever that begins to increase in temperature over time, a cough that gets worse over time and shortness of breath.
Are you at risk for getting the COVID-19 coronavirus? The answer there is “it depends.” If you are frequently in places where people congregate in close quarters, yes. If you are a health worker, yes.
School teachers, nursery and day care workers and others who work with children are also slightly more at risk. The reason? It’s been observed that children can acquire the virus with no or very mild symptoms. They may be able to spread the virus before mom and dad know they’re sick. There’s still some disagreement on this, but the prevailing opinion seems to be shifting toward believing this is accurate.
Older adult males seem most at-risk for acquiring the virus. It’s also been noted that men died at a higher percentage rate than women early in the outbreak. That still seems to be the case.
Are you likely to die from COVID-19? In a word, no. Even if we accept the latest case fatality rate estimate of 3.4 percent, You’re still overwhelmingly likely to survive it. We covered this above, but it’s worth repeating.
Can you prevent exposure to the virus? Probably not, unless you’re a fan of holing up somewhere for 3 to 6 months with a stockpile of hand sanitizer, antiseptic spray and maybe some coffee, food and vodka (alcohol kills germs, right?)
You can, however, minimize your exposure, reduce the chance of getting infected if exposed and increase your chances of coming away with a mild case if you do get infected. Here are some ideas:
Wash your hands! Yep, your mom was right! Get yourself some warm water, some good soap and lather it up. 20 seconds should do it. That’s about as long as it takes to sing your “ABC’s.”
If you’re feeling sick, stay home! Don’t be a hero. You’re just going to make the situation worse, so wrap up in a blanket and hit the couch. Netflix and have the chills.
Keep your hands off your face, nose, mouth and eyes. You don’t know where they’ve been. Really, you don’t. You just think you do. The exception? Right after you’ve washed both your hands and face.
Cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow When you sneeze or cough. Be sure to throw it away immediately. The tissue, that is, not your elbow.
Clean the stuff you touch a lot. Dishes, doorknobs, utensils, computers and especially your phones. Your cell phone is a petri dish full of bacteria and other critters that you rub against your face regularly. Keep it clean!
Engage in social distancing. I’m a hand shaker, high-fiver, hugger, etc. This, however, makes some sense in relation to the current outbreak. The CDC says stay 6 feet away from anyone who’s coughing, sneezing or otherwise spewing droplets. Those droplets get sprayed around and you can wind up breathing them in.
Be prepared! Let’s be real. The possibility of being sick or getting quarantined is real. Have a 30 day supply of prescription medications on hand. Try to have some other health supplies on hand, too. Cough and cold medicines, pain relievers, vitamins and minerals (looking for the best vitamins/minerals available? Ask me!) and maybe some fluids with electrolytes are a good idea for your emergency supply.
Stock up on high-quality cleaning and disinfecting products. I prefer green, safe and highly effective products. Choose yours as you see fit.
A two week supply of food is a good idea, too. The electric won’t go out, so you can buy frozen foods. There are also food delivery apps and services, some of which are instituting no-contact deliveries, dropping the order on your doorstep or outside your door.
Get plenty of sleep. Sleep helps the body heal, boosts immunity and helps you manage stress. (4, 5) Poor stress management leads to your body remaining in the “fight or flight” condition. This keeps hormones out of balance and contributes to poor immune function. Sleep more and fight diseases better!
Drink plenty of fluids. Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated keeps cells healthy. When they’re healthy, they fight viruses and other diseases better.
Eat real, whole, nutritious foods. Avoid processed and junk foods. Give your immune system the ammo it needs to fight off infection.
Get some exercise. People with better strength and cardiovascular fitness and health are far more likely to heal well if they do get the virus. Since exercise improves immune health, it may well help you prevent infection in the first place.
Take vitamins. For 20 -plus years, I’ve been giving the following advice to every client I’ve worked with. “Take a high-quality multi-vitamin/mineral complex and take vitamin C. Vitamins and minerals are catalysts for body functions, including immune function. Vitamin C is crucial to immune function. Your body doesn’t make or store vitamin C, so you need to get it from food or supplements. To be sure you get enough, take a vitamin C supplement.
What it really comes down to is awareness. Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of how you’re feeling. Be aware of what you can do to help yourself and your loved ones stay healthy. Be aware of what you need to do to prepare for the possibility of being ill or quarantined.
Most important, be aware of the reality that this crisis is likely to pass in a relatively short time. I’ll be addressing more reasons why you shouldn’t panic over this in another piece next week. Meanwhile, let’s all take a deep breath and get back to living our lives. Virus or no virus, life goes on!
Keep the faith and keep after it!