The New Coronavirus: What Is It, and Should You Worry?
An infectious disease specialist explains what’s known (and what isn’t) so far about the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
This article was originally published on Feb. 5, 2020. It was updated on March 11, 2020, to reflect new information about this rapidly evolving situation.
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In recent weeks, a new coronavirus disease called COVID-19 has spread from where it was first detected in China to dozens of other countries. Now, several U.S. states have confirmed cases.
As the outbreak hits closer to home — and the news coverage becomes more alarming — you might wonder what this means for you, your family and your community.
“Like any novel infection that’s reported, it’s certainly a public health concern,” says Steven Gordon, MD, Chairman of the Department of Infectious Disease. And there is still much to learn about this new coronavirus disease.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that “the immune response to COVID-19 is not yet understood.” Because this is a new strain of coronavirus, scientists are still collecting information and research on the virus.
As the situation continues to evolve, infectious disease specialist Frank Esper, MD, encourages people to stay informed and follow common-sense practices like proper hand-washing to reduce the spread of viruses.
“This virus warrants our attention because it can cause very severe disease — but in 80% of people who get it, it does not,” he says.
Coronavirus is a family of viruses that are common in people and animals. They can cause a variety of illnesses, ranging from the common cold to severe pneumonia.
Coronaviruses spread from person to person through droplets released when people who are infected cough or sneeze. These infected droplets can land on people nearby, who can then become infected if the virus gets into their body through their eyes, nose or mouth.
So you could get COVID-19 from coming in close contact with an infected person who is coughing and sneezing, Dr. Gordon says. Experts also suspect that you can get it from touching a surface that has been contaminated with virus-containing droplets.
Because of this, the CDC recommends that people who have or might have COVID-19, or anyone caring for someone who has it, wear face masks to prevent the spread. However, you do not need to wear a face mask if you are not sick.
Symptoms are what one would expect from a typical upper respiratory infection, including cough and fever. Some people also have other symptoms that mimic the flu, such as muscle aches, sore throat or diarrhea, Dr. Esper notes.
“Unfortunately there is no truly identifying feature of this coronavirus that separates it from other viruses out there,” he says.
Most people who contract the virus will have mild symptoms and can recover on their own at home. But people over age 50 and people who have heart disease, lung disease or weakened immune systems seem to be more at risk for serious infections that could lead to pneumonia and difficulty breathing, Dr. Esper says.
The only way to confirm that someone has COVID-19 is through a swab test. Efforts are underway to make testing more widely available in U.S. hospitals and healthcare facilities. Because of this, Dr. Esper expects to see an uptick in the number of cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed and reported.
However, the CDC currently considers the immediate health risk to the American public to be low.
While there is no specific treatment for COVID-19, the best way to protect against it and any other upper respiratory infection is to practice good cold and flu season hygiene, Dr. Gordon says.
Actions to prevent the spread of viruses include:
If you think you may have been infected with the coronavirus, call your healthcare provider. They will ask about your symptoms and recent travel, and recommend what next steps you should take.