The World Health Organization says the risk of the coronavirus is “very high” as the mysterious illness spreads to about 60 countries, including the United States.
COVID-19, the name of the coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China, in December, has infected almost 85,000 people and killed almost 3,000, prompting school closures, state of emergency declarations and plunging stock markets worldwide.
In the U.S., officials have detected at least 64 cases, the bulk of whom got sick while in another country. On Friday evening, state officials reported four possible cases of community spread, meaning the source of infection is unknown, in California, Oregon and the state of Washington.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday the first possible instance of community spread in a Northern California woman who reportedly had not traveled to any of the affected countries and had not knowingly been in contact with anyone who had been infected.
Here’s what is known about the coronavirus so far.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
People with the coronavirus get flu-like symptoms that can range from mild to severe. Symptoms can include fever, cough, aches and shortness of breath.
The CDC say the symptoms can take two to 14 days to appear after exposure.
How does the coronavirus spread?
Health experts believe the coronavirus spreads between people who are in close contact, as far away as 6 feet from each other, and through an infected person’s coughs or sneezes. The CDC says it might be possible for a person to catch the virus from touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching his or her own mouth, nose or eyes.
Patients appear to be the most contagious when they are exhibiting symptoms. There have been reports of the virus spreading when infected people are not showing symptoms, but health officials do not think that is the most common way the virus spreads.
Carla Drysdale, communications officer for the World Health Organization, said the risk of catching the coronavirus is low for individuals who are in areas where COVID-19 isn’t spreading and who have not traveled to affected areas or had close contact with someone who is ill.
The understanding of how COVID-19 spreads is largely based on what is known about previous coronaviruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Officials reported the first cases of coronavirus in late December and have linked the flu-like illness to a large animal and seafood market in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei Province.
The source of the coronavirus is unknown, although bats are the most likely culprit, according to health officials.
How deadly is the coronavirus and who is most at risk?
COVID-19 appears to have a fatality rate of about 2%, higher than the flu but lower than other coronaviruses such as SARS.
“It kills by affecting respiration or other systemic functions in the body. It could lead to bronchitis or pneumonia, for example. Most at risk are the elderly and/or people with ongoing medical problems like asthma, diabetes, heart disease,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.
What is being done to combat the disease in the U.S.?
The Trump administration has set up a coronavirus task force and barred the entry of foreign nationals into the U.S. who have traveled to China recently, with few exceptions.
President Trump has said he wants to spend $2.5 billion to combat the virus, but lawmakers in both parties say that number should be higher. The White House and Congress are negotiating, and Mr. Trump says he’s willing to accept more than his requested amount. He wants to sign a deal no later than the week starting March 9, officials said.
The State Department has raised travel warnings to the highest level, advising people to not travel to China.
Federal health officials are screening passengers at major airports and mandating 14-day quarantines for citizens repatriated to the U.S. and for travelers returning from China. The CDC has sent test kits to labs across the country and is making new test kits to distribute.
The National Institutes of Health and other organizations are working on developing antiviral treatments and a vaccine to fight against the coronavirus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease specialist at NIH, said he expects a human trial of a vaccine to begin within a few weeks.However, a vaccine will take more than a year to develop.
NIH began a clinical trial this week of the antiviral treatment remdesivir, the same drug tested for Ebola that has shown some success in animal studies for MERS.
Food and Drug Administration CommissionerStephen Hahn said his agency is working to diagnose and treat the coronavirus and is monitoring the medical products supply chain for disruptions and shortages.
What steps can people take to protect and prepare themselves?
Dr. Peter Hotez, a health policy scholar for the Baylor College of Medicine, said it’s important for the public to stay up-to-date on coronavirus developments but not to panic.
“It’s very important they stay mindful of the news and whether transmission has started in their community. Right now, I’m suggesting that it should be business as usual for most Americans, except maybe in that one area of Northern California, but this situation could change quickly,” Dr. Hotez said.
Health experts are stressing using basic hygiene such as washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, staying away from sick people and avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth. Those experiencing flu-like symptoms should stay at home and see a doctor immediately. Since it’s still flu season, health professionals recommend everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine.
While there has been a worldwide run on surgical masks, the CDC doesn’t recommend that people wear masks to protect themselves from the virus. People with the disease or showing symptoms should wear them, it says.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said people can plan ahead in case an outbreak hits their hometown. He said families can discuss what they would do if they were asked to stay at home such as considering which supplies and medications they would need to stock up on and find out from their employer if they can work remotely.
People can also be vigilant about wiping down surfaces. The coronavirus seems to be “susceptible” to common household products, Dr. Schaffner said.
What should you do if you think you have the coronavirus?
Individuals who suspect they have the coronavirus should call their health care provider immediately. Dr. Schaffner said it’s important to call ahead before visiting a doctor’s office or emergency room to avoid possibly exposing others.
Is spread in the U.S. inevitable?
The CDC said this week that although the immediate threat to the U.S. is low, more cases are inevitable.
“We have the best public health system in the world, but that won’t guarantee against widespread transmission in the U.S. Clinics and hospitals need to be prepared with medical equipment, essential drugs like antibiotics, ventilators and other supplies. There is likely to be a run on health services if and when the virus spreads widely,” Mr. Gostin said.
As more countries report the spread of the coronavirus, Dr. Schaffner said there will be more imported cases in the U.S., some of them not “optimally controlled.”
He said the public should expect more illnesses, deaths and social disruptions, but noted that panicking will not help.
“We will get through this. We will cope with this. This will be a struggle,” Dr. Schaffner said. “There will be discomfort. There will be pain. But we will get through with this.”