Listener Questions: What To Know About The New Coronavirus

Feb 26, 2020
Originally published on February 26, 2020 3:16 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This evening, President Trump held a news conference to talk about the coronavirus and the illness it causes - COVID-19.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're very, very ready for this, for anything, whether it's going to be a breakout of larger proportions or whether or not we're - you know, we're at that very low level. And we want to keep it that way.

CHANG: Still, health officials say it is not a question of if the coronavirus will spread here but when. So we asked you, our listeners, for your questions about this virus. And we have Allison Aubrey from NPR's science desk here to answer some of those questions.

Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So we got some really great questions from listeners, and I want to start with this one from Matty Park in Ventura, Calif.

MATTY PARK: I'm just wondering with the coronavirus, how many people who get the coronavirus actually die? How dangerous is it, really? How much more likely is it to lead to death than the regular flu?

AUBREY: Well, I would say that the good news is that so far, most of the illnesses have been mild. In China, 80% of the cases have been classified as mild. This means symptoms such as, you know, a dry cough, maybe a low-grade fever, something similar to a cold...

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Or perhaps the flu. Now, the death rate is estimated to be about 2%, and this is really important to point out. It means that 98% of people who get this don't die from the virus.

CHANG: Right.

AUBREY: Matty asks how this compares to flu. Well, the answer is that flu has a mortality rate of about 0.1%, or about one in a thousand. But here's something that - to keep in mind, Ailsa, that I think is really important. This 2% estimate is really provisional. It could be off. I mean, early in an outbreak, the sickest people are identified. And there may be people with more mild cases that have not been accounted for, so that could throw off the calculation. And it's possible that the death rate is even lower. And the people who do die in China tend to be older. The average age is in the 70s. And the fact really is that people who are already in poor health due to medical conditions or habits such as smoking - that they are most vulnerable.

CHANG: Now, a number of people wrote in about something that they were confused by. This is something that Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday.

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NANCY MESSONNIER: We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad.

CHANG: OK. One listener heard that and wrote to us, what does that mean exactly? It is completely unhelpful. Bottom line - what do we do in a practical sense? That's an exact quote.

AUBREY: Big picture here is that there is certainly no cause for panic here, but it is time to prepare. When an outbreak happens here, it won't be everywhere all at once. It could be a small cluster in a small town. It could be in the middle of an urban area. We just don't know. But think about this the way you think about preparing for a snowstorm or a hurricane.

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: So you'll want to have some extra food in your cupboards. You might want to have some basic medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen. What happens if school is closed? Talk to your employer about working from home. Think through those details. It's really all about planning.

CHANG: OK. Here's another question from listener Ayesha Dixon. She's a single mom of a 4-year-old.

AYESHA DIXON: I have a friend coming back from Japan, and I'm wondering, should I hang out with them this weekend? I jokingly said, let's hang out in about two weeks, but now I'm kind of worried.

CHANG: Now, Ayesha says that she's a healthy adult, but you can hear she's worried about her child. Should she be?

AUBREY: Well, you know, it's not an unreasonable concern. And certainly, there will be a whole lot more talk about social distancing, especially if we start to see outbreaks. But Ayesha asks about kids. And what we know so far is that kids do not seem to be as vulnerable to this coronavirus. There have been a surprisingly low number of cases among children in China. A small study that tracked what happened to a group of infants who'd been diagnosed in China after being infected by a family member - it found that the babies seemed to do well at fending off the virus.

I spoke to Cody Meissner. He's a pediatric infectious disease expert at Tufts.

CODY MEISSNER: It turned out that it was a very mild illness. Some had a cough. Fever was very low-grade. It was really a mild upper respiratory tract infection or even no symptoms.

AUBREY: So that could be kind of reassuring to parents.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, I think part of what's been alarming about the coronavirus is watching it infect people from lots of different places in the world. And our next question gets at this global nature of the virus.

CARVIS CATHEY: My name is Carvis Cathey, and I'm from South Texas. Is there any chance that items made in China should be avoided? Like, can the virus survive the trip over from shipments?

CHANG: My guess is no.

AUBREY: You're absolutely right. There is absolutely no evidence that the virus can be transmitted via a package. The CDC has weighed in on this, saying that because of the poor survivability of the virus on surfaces, this is just not a concern. Now, I will say that coronaviruses are thought to mainly spread from person to person via respiratory droplets. And so it's certainly possible that if an infected person coughs or sneezes and then you walk through that or touch the doorknob or the elevator button where those little droplets have landed...

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: You could become infected. And that's why we are constantly hearing now about the importance of good hygiene, especially hand-washing.

CHANG: OK. Let's talk about travel now. I mean, we had a lot of questions from people who have all kinds of travel plans coming up.

AUBREY: Sure. It's the beginning of the spring break season. It's on the minds of everyone.

CHANG: Yeah. And we're talking, like, airplane travel to countries with reported outbreaks, like Italy. What's the guidance from experts there?

AUBREY: Well, the CDC is updating its travel guidelines almost daily. They use this kind of four-level scale to rank the risk. Level one is business as usual, no problem. Level four is, don't travel to that place. Right now, Italy is at a level two, which means you really want to just practice what they call enhanced precautions. That means, you know, stay away from sick people. Be aware of the policies that the Italian government has put in place. So, for instance, public events have been canceled in the region where there are outbreaks, and this may affect your planning.

CHANG: Well, what about cruises? My parents just canceled a cruise because of all this. We had a listener write in wondering about whether she should cancel her...

AUBREY: Right.

CHANG: ...Upcoming Caribbean cruise or whether she should just go and pack a bunch of face masks and medicine. What do you think?

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, I think you have to think about your personal risk. If you're young and healthy, it's a different calculation than if you're in your 70s or 80s. Older, less healthy people are more vulnerable. Also, you've got to think about the consequences. I mean, if you go on a cruise and there's an outbreak on that ship, can you afford to be quarantined or delayed? Or do you need to get back to your family and work? That's just something to think about.

CHANG: OK. Lastly, there is a question here about when this coronavirus outbreak might end.

KATHARINE MAYNE: This is Katharine Mayne from Fulton, Mo. And my question is, will this coronavirus be seasonal and ebb away in the summer like influenza does every year?

AUBREY: There is a seasonality to many viruses. Flu and cold viruses tend to peak in the winter months then die down with warmer weather. It has to do with the - how temperature and humidity can influence transmission. And some infectious disease experts say this could happen with the new coronavirus, but the problem is this virus is so new it's really unpredictable.

CHANG: Yeah. That is NPR's Allison Aubrey.

Thank you so much, Allison, for answering all of our questions.

AUBREY: Happy to do it.

CHANG: And we will get to more of your questions in the coming days.

AUBREY: And I hope your parents eventually get to reschedule that cruise.

CHANG: I hope so, too. They need a break.

AUBREY: Thanks.

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