The global death toll of the novel coronavirus has now surpassed 3,000. In the U.S., Washington state has had two deaths from the virus, with 10 states reporting confirmed and presumptive positive cases of COVID-19.
Health officials are scrambling to prepare for a potential outbreak in the U.S.
“It does seem we are behind the curve on testing, now that the disease is presenting with some ferocity in places outside of China,” says Kathleen Sebelius, former Health and Human Services secretary under former President Obama.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged schools and businesses to begin taking appropriate measures to prepare.
Dr. William Schaffner, professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says right now, the best action people can take is proper hand hygiene. The CDC recommends scrubbing your hands with soap for 20 seconds, then rinsing.
“Wash those hands, use those wipes and gels — that’s the way to protect yourself,” Schaffner says.
Do face masks work?
More data is needed, Schaffner says.
“What we know about masks used in the community is that the data supporting that is scant. Could they have a small role in preventing the transmission of the virus? I suppose so. One of the things they do is prevent you from actually touching your nose and your mouth, which might interrupt transmission if you happen to pick it up on your fingertips. But the use of masks is more a comfort and a sign to others that you’re doing your best rather than an actual prevention of getting the coronavirus or influenza for that matter.”
Are face masks effective for those who are sick?
Yes, Schaffner says.
“That would be correct. And we would then recommend that [face masks] be used within the home. It’s not a license for sick people to go out and about, which a lot of people misinterpret.”
How long can COVID-19 survive in the environment? Would transmission of the virus be possible via contact with goods produced in an endemic area?
The risk is “very, very low,” Schaffner says.
“The virus can survive for a period of hours, but then it just dies off because that’s not a comfortable environment for the virus. And the way to protect oneself from potential environmental contamination just around and about is lots of good hand hygiene.”
Will the novel coronavirus be seasonal?
Schaffner says we don’t know for sure yet.
“Well, we don’t exactly know why influenza and common colds are so seasonal, but they are. And there has been a hope that the coronavirus will have read the textbook and we’ll know what to do and kind of go away once the weather gets a bit warmer. But we don’t know that this novel coronavirus, new in humans, will do that.”
If you get the new coronavirus and recover, are you then immune to getting it again?
We don’t know the answer to this one yet either, Schaffner says.
“The normal human coronaviruses give us some protection for a period of time, and then over a period of months and years, that protection wanes and we can get re-infected. So this is a new coronavirus. Will it follow that pattern or will it give us durable protection for a long period of time akin to measles? We don’t know the answer to that yet.”
Are there any specific precautions or recommendations for children or pregnant people?
Right now, recommendations are the same across the board, he says.
“One of the most provocative aspects — epidemiologic features — of the coronavirus outbreak is that children are remarkably spared, not 100%, but you don’t see many, many ill children in China, for example. And so this is a peculiarity of the virus that we haven’t yet really understood. The recommendations regarding children and pregnant women are the same as for all of us: lots of good hand hygiene, avoid people who are coughing and sneezing and pay attention to what your local health department is saying about the risk in your particular neighborhood. We’ll find out more about that as we test more broadly around the country in the next couple of weeks.”
What is the most up to date status globally for producing an effective COVID-19 vaccine?
It’s still in the process of being developed, he says.
“People are working on this in a number of venues, the National Institutes of Health, any number of vaccine manufacturers both in this country and abroad. But we shouldn’t get our hopes up for the near-term. Developing a vaccine that is demonstrably safe and likely to be effective will take months, probably a year or longer. We certainly don’t want to give a vaccine that’s either unsafe or doesn’t work. It will take time to determine that.”
Does having a pre-existing health condition, such as asthma, put someone more at risk?
Scientists are still learning about that, he says.
“The Chinese experience is telling us that, first of all, advancing age is a disadvantage. The older you get, the more likely you are to have a severe infection. And of course, as we age, we pick up underlying illnesses, diseases of the heart, the lung, diabetes and the like. I cannot tell you specifically about asthma. And of course, in China, it’s a much more polluted environment than we have here. And many people, particularly men, smoke. So in China, there may be many persons who have an underlying lung disease. So the lung can’t respond as well and is more susceptible to severity.”
What about traveling?
Traveling has to do with your risk tolerance, Schaffner says.
“How nervous would it make you to either pick up a virus over there and be treated in one of those locations, or might there actually be travel barriers that are put up which would make it difficult for you to return home? Making those decisions is kind of dicey right at the moment, I’m afraid.”
Are there any misconceptions about COVID-19?
COVID-19 transmission cannot happen through food, he says.
“The one that’s come up just recently is whether food could somehow be involved in the transmission of this virus. There’s nothing to do with food and the transmission of this virus. You can put that thought aside.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.