How much should you worry about Coronavirus?

A new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has been identified in Wuhan, China, and hundreds of confirmed cases have been diagnosed, including cases in the United States.  As the old saying goes: bad news travels fast, but bad coronaviruses travel even faster.

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a type of virus named for their crown-like appearance when seen under the microscope (in case you have one in your house). They tend to cause mild to moderate upper respiratory tract symptoms like the cold, with symptoms including sore throat, runny nose, sinus pain, headache, cough, and fever.  Unfortunately, there have been 2 outbreaks over the past two decades that have caused severe symptoms and deaths.  Coronaviruses were responsible for both the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, which started in China in 2002, and the MERS (middle east respiratory syndrome) epidemic, identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. These both encompassed hundreds of deaths worldwide, usually due to pneumonia and respiratory failure as well as liver and heart failure.

Should we all be worried?

Yes.  In fact, this new coronavirus outbreak in China has already been responsible for over 17 deaths, necessitating current travel restrictions and travel bans.

Who is at risk for infection?

Anyone who has had close contact with someone who is infected.  Transmission can be airborne after an infected person coughs or sneezes. Also, if you touch an object that has virus particles on it and then touch your mouth or rub your eyes, you could have just infected yourself.  Small children, people over the age of 65 years old, and people with compromised immune systems are at highest risk of severe symptoms and death.

Should we all wear masks and body armor?

Although masks may help decrease transmission, there is no need to overreact at this time. (You can leave the armor suit on the knight in the hallway.)  Things we can all do to decrease our chances of catching this bugger:

  • wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • avoid touching your mouth, your nose, or rubbing your eyes unless you just washed your hands.
  • if you live or work with someone who has symptoms, disinfect surfaces often (as well as encourage him or her to stay home from work and possibly wear a mask when out).
  • seek medical attention if you develop symptoms and make sure to stay well hydrated.

To keep updated, visit the CDC’s coronavirus website.

Marc Eisenberg, M.D., F.A.C.C.

Marc Sabin Eisenberg, M.D., F.A.C.C., is an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and an attending cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Christopher Kelly, M.D., M.S.

Christopher Rehbeck Kelly, M.D., M.S., is a cardiologist at North Carolina Heart and Vascular and UNC Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.