Coronavirus: Should You Be Concerned?


Updated Feb. 4, 2020.

With confirmed coronavirus cases now in the United States, should we all be concerned? As UH Rainbow pediatric infectious disease specialist Claudia Hoyen, MD, explains in the Q and A below, the risks are minimal -- and influenza remains a much larger threat.

Q: Should we be concerned about the coronavirus from Wuhan, China?

A: I think we should be vigilant. The people who are really worrying about what the plan is for this are public health authorities, the CDC, people at our hospital. The risk for the general population at this point is not that great.

You have a higher chance of contracting the flu. And so, we need to be vigilant and we need to stay focused on what’s important, which is keeping ourselves healthy and safe from the flu as well as watching what’s happening with the ongoing situation and making the changes we need to make.

Q: How many people may be infected?

A: It’s evolving in terms of the numbers. There was an initial paper that came out last week that has described this as along the level of SARS and so I think that as we see more cases in China and from other areas, we’ll have a better sense of how severe this is going to be.

With these emerging infections, we always need to understand that things might change at some point and as it perhaps picks up more speed, the virus may change in some ways. I think our best plan right now is to stay well-informed, stay connected and be nimble about things we need to be doing.

Q: What are the characteristics associated with the coronavirus that people need to consider?

A: The CDC has put out some really great guidance that we’re following here at UH. If somebody is presenting with a fever or respiratory symptoms, then we need to take down a travel history. Travel history of concern recently has been expanded from Wuhan City to Hubei Province and all of China, depending on the patient's clinical condition.

We also want to know if the patient has had close contact with a confirmed case, as well as symptoms consistent with the infection, which is named 2019-nCoV.

It’s important to follow the protocols and not having people get panicked. The things we would worry about are travel to China as well as coming in contact with someone who is confirmed as having the 2019-nCoV virus.

Q: If someone becomes sick with coronavirus in Ohio, does that change the situation?

A: I don’t think so. I have been doing this a long time and the world is much smaller than we all think. Our best approach, as people who treat infectious diseases, has to be one where we consider the world as one. We have to be watching what happens in southeast Ohio, but we also need to be watching what happens in southeast Asia.

The conversation will be a little bit different if someone becomes sick in Ohio, but from the perspective of people who are watching it, we’re trying to think ahead. We’re trying to think of where things may go and keeping people as safe right now -- as we would then -- is really our priority.

Q: What is University Hospitals doing to keep people safe?

A: We are doing what the CDC recommends: We are screening people who present with viral illnesses for their travel history and if we have people who have certain travel histories that might be concerning, placing them in the appropriate isolation.

The biggest thing is really keeping in contact with our local and state health officials and making sure that we are making plans for patients consistent with the guidance they are giving us and keeping them in the loop with what we’re seeing on the ground. The more information we feed them, the better decisions they are going to be able to tell us moving forward.

Q: But if there’s a case in Ohio, isn’t there a higher chance that any one of us could become ill?

A: True, but you have to think about the fact that your chance of coming in contact with someone who has the flu are even higher. And if you haven’t had your flu shot, you could get as sick.

You have to keep it in perspective. You’re right, the chances are higher, but if it’s in southeast Ohio – or even Northeast Ohio – the chances of you as an individual coming in contact with that specific individual are still pretty rare.

Q: What precautions do you recommend?

A: It’s the same things we’ve always talked about. If you’re out in public and you’ve come back into your cocoon or your world, wash your hands. If you’re out in public and you’re touching different things, don’t touch your nose or your mouth or your eyes.

If you have to cough or if somebody is coughing near you, step back if they’re coughing or ask them to cough into their elbow. What you want to do is cover your mouth and your nose when you’re coughing and not cough into your hand. If you cough in your hand and you don’t have time to wash it, there’s a good chance you’re going to touch something in the environment.

We really need to do the things to keep ourselves safe and each other safe. If everybody is thinking about it in that way, then even if there is a case in Northeast Ohio, the chances of it spreading are going to be less likely.

The most important thing right now -- today -- is get your flu shot.

Q: How should parents respond if a child or young person says they fear getting the coronavirus?

A: I had this conversation with my son. We live in a world where lots of people are around us. Talk to them about the fact that we need to be realistic in terms of what is our actual chance of exposure to someone who is actually sick with it. Probably close to zero at this point. What are our chances of having been exposed to someone who may have traveled to that area? Very low at this point. Emphasizing those things that are important – wash your hands, don’t touch your face, get your flu shot, and just really make sure that they're doing things to keep themselves safe and healthy.

As things evolve, we’ll have more conversations. But for now we need to stay focused on the things that are important and continue to monitor the situation.

Related links

If you haven’t gotten your flu vaccine, it’s not too late – flu season will last until the end of March and cases occur as late as May. Learn more about the types of flu, flu symptoms and other information, such as when to see a doctor. 

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