COVID-19, known to most as coronavirus due to its shape and structure, is approaching pandemic status, but doctors and scientists are still holding back on sounding the alarm.
State health officials are taking necessary precautions and monitoring the development of the virus across the globe, but there have been no confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus in Mississippi, Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center Infection Preventionist Tammy Bacot, RN, said Tuesday.
Health officials classified Mississippi as being at low risk for widespread virus occurrence but admit there’s a lot doctors don’t know.
“There’s still a low risk to the general population,” Bacot said. “But it’s a new virus and it’s evolving rapidly. We don’t know what the future will look like.”
While this virus likely isn’t “the big one” in terms of a deadly global pandemic, there are measures people can take each day to help protect themselves from infection.
Bacot emphasized the importance of keeping the basic principles of infection prevention: frequent and thorough handwashing, keeping your hands away from your face and keeping a social distance of about six feet from others.
No time frame for virus infection, transmission or remission has been developed. Although the coronavirus exhibits similarities to different strains of the flu, doctors haven’t had enough time to determine that.
She said the virus is transmitted through mucus membranes such as the eyes, nose and mouth and that keeping hands far away from those areas can prevent contracting the illness.
Considering people touch their own faces about 100 times each hour, doctors might be onto something.
Misinformation surrounding the virus spread like wildfire on the internet in recent weeks, with one notable false-story claiming Americans refused to purchase Corona brand beer because of its namesake being shared with the virus, leading to a huge dip in beer sales. That story was debunked — Constellation Brands, which owns the Mexican beer, actually posted solid sales numbers in the initial months of the outbreak.
Another piece of misinformation surrounded a 2017 graphic from the Centers for Disease Control regarding facial hair and filtering facepiece respirators, not the surgical masks that have become a ubiquitous item associated with coronavirus. And there also numerous false claims surgical masks alone being an effective deterrent for becoming infected, and that it can be cured with garlic.
Even though the virus hasn’t made it to Mississippi, Bacot said patients experiencing symptoms similar to the flu, including a productive cough and fever, or those who have had contact with individuals who recently traveled to areas of widespread transmission should notify their doctors when they enter a health care facility.
People flocking to hardware stores in search of particle masks needn’t do so since those can’t filter out tiny viruses anyway. Bacot said only those who already have the virus need to wear masks to help reduce further transmission. If a patient goes to see a health care provider and is experiencing flu-like symptoms, they should obtain a mask immediately.
With the risk of infection is still considered quite low in Mississippi, individuals are encouraged not to deviate from their daily activities — except to keep better hygiene. Bacot said there’s not reason to stay home from group events like concerts or sporting events, and the situation changes then health officials will make an announcement.
“Stay calm, don’t panic,” she said. “Go on with your life. Don’t let the fear take over.”
While there haven’t been any confirmed cases in Mississippi of the virus that swept through east Asia over the winter, it is essentially a matter of time before cases crop-up. In recent weeks, 12 states including Oregon, Illinois, Washington, California and New York experienced an uptick in confirmed cases and also a few deaths related to the virus.
It’s worth noting that the outbreak in Washington state was traced to a senior living facility and, as with all flu-like illnesses, will take its greatest toll on individuals with weak or compromised immune systems, such as the chronically ill or elderly. Also important to consider is that “normal” strains of the flu kill upwards of 30,000 Americans each year.
While hysteria surrounding the outbreak has certainly reached a fever pitch, and most doctors and health officials have cautioned against mass panic, coronavirus is significantly more virulent than strains of the flu we experience on a yearly-basis. Doctors estimate the mortality rate associated with coronavirus is 2%, about twice as high as rates associated with seasonal flu viruses.
That may not seem like much, but stretched to scale among millions of people, a 2% mortality rate starts looking a whole lot like numbers associated with the deadly outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918.
But medicine has progressed leaps and bounds since the early 20th century and health officials are better able to prevent and treat flu-like illnesses as they occur.
Either way, hand washing is essentially the frontline of defense against the further propagation of the virus.
“Maintain good hand hygiene and don’t touch your face,” Bacot said.