As of March 22, 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus has killed about 15,000 people worldwide. But according to the World Health Organization, between 291,000 and 646,000 die from the flu every year. So why is there so much concern about COVID-19?
Health authorities are responding to what could happen if the virus isn’t contained (and containment is looking very unlikely). There are many indications that the virus could cause a “once in a century” pandemic.
“Two or three weeks ago, we were still hoping for containment,” says Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University. “We’re really past that. The horse is out of the barn.”
Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia virologist, says, “We don’t know what the prevalence actually is in the US. Two weeks ago, I probably would have said that there’s a possibility that this will become endemic. Now, I think given our government’s public health response, I’m much more alarmed that this probably will become endemic.”
What Would a Pandemic Mean?
A pandemic is a world-wide epidemic. The best example we have is the flu epidemic of 1918. The flu infected over 500 million people – which was a third of the world’s population at the time. An estimated 20-50 million people died, including 675,000 Americans.
There are several reasons why a COVID-19 pandemic could be as bad or worse.
COVID-19 is more infectious than the flu
Epidemiologists (people who study infectious disease transmission) assign a reproduction number – or R number – to a disease, which indicates how easily it spreads. The number is the expected number of secondary infections arising from each infected person.
The R number for the flu virus ranges from 1.2 to 1.5. That means for every 100 infected people, another 120-150 will catch the disease. And of course, each of those people will infect additional people.
Current studies show that the reproductive number of COVID-19 is 2.28, In other words, it is much more likely to spread than the flu virus.
In the United States, about 35-45% of Americans get a flu vaccination each year. This creates a “buffer” of people who cannot be infected, and slows the spread of the disease. This is referred to as herd immunity. There is no vaccine for COVID-19, so we will not have herd immunity to slow its spread.
It also appears that COVID-19 can be spread by people who are asymptomatic (showing no symptoms), or people with very mild symptoms. In other words, people can spread the disease without even knowing that they are infected.
COVID-19 is deadlier than the flu
In a typical year, the death rate from the flu virus is 0.1%. For every 1,000 infected people, roughly one person dies. Current studies indicate that the death rate for COVID-19 ranges from 1.4% to 2.9%. That means it’s 14 to 29 times as deadly as the flu.
Just as with the flu, almost all the COVID-19 deaths have been among older patients, or patients with impaired immune systems. But even if you are not at risk of dying, you may spread the disease to people who are more vulnerable.
The world is “smaller”
In 1918, travel was much more limited than it is today. Airlines make it possible for an infected person to travel halfway around the world in hours, spreading the infection to new geographic areas. Despite restrictions on international travel, the virus has already spread to 90 countries.
What You Can Do to Protect Yourself
The COVID-19 virus spreads in two ways – and currently, we don’t know which is more prevalent.
- Aerial Transmission. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, infected droplets of saliva or mucus enter the air, where they can be inhaled. Infected droplets can spread in a radius of 6 feet or more.
- Surface transmission. Infected droplets land on surfaces. The virus spreads when people touch infected surfaces, and then touch their faces. The infection can remain active and viable on a surface for a day or more.
To reduce the chances of infection, there are some simple rules you can follow.
Avoid public gatherings
Public gatherings allow viruses to spread. Infected people may cough or sneeze, infecting others directly, or spreading the virus onto surfaces that other people touch.
Keep your distance, and don’t touch
When a person coughs or sneezes, infected droplets can travel as much as six feet, so try to keep a “buffer zone” between yourself and other people.
Avoid handshakes and hugs, which can transmit the disease from another person’s hands to yours.
Wash your hands, and don’t touch your face
Wash your hands frequently. Wash for at least 20 seconds, with soap and hot water. You can use hand sanitizers if you like, but soap and water are just as effective.
If you do use sanitizing wipes or gels, look for a product that is at least 60% alcohol, and wipe your hands or surfaces for a full minute… a quick wipe is not enough to kill the virus.
Try not to touch your face – especially your eyes, nose and mouth – because that’s how the virus enters your body.
Be aware of potentially contaminated surfaces
The virus can live on any surface… a desktop, a bus seat, a package on a store shelf, and even fruits and vegetables in the produce section at your grocery store. Surfaces that are most likely to be contaminated are doorknobs and light switches, which many people touch. If possible, use your elbow rather than your hands to open doors or flip switches.
Be sure to thoroughly wash or cook all produce.
Avoid eating at restaurants
There has been an unreasonable backlash against Chinese restaurants, which many people are now avoiding. But the truth is that restaurants of any kind are a common source of infections.
Most restaurant workers are not well paid, and do not get paid when they take time off. For that reason, many people will continue to work even when they are sick. Coughing or sneezing in the kitchen can spread infection to utensils, or even to the food being served.
If the COVID-19 virus spreads to your area, avoiding restaurants is a good way to decrease your risk of contracting the virus.
Don’t bother with a mask
The type of masks that you can buy at your home improvement store are designed to filter out large particles… they offer little protection from a virus. However, if you are infected, wearing a mask can help prevent you from spreading the disease to others by “containing” your coughs and sneezes.
A medical-grade respirator mask, called an N95, can protect you from aerial spread of a coronavirus – but these masks are in short supply, and needed for health care professionals.
The World Health Organization has published guidelines for when and how to use a mask .
What is Likely to Happen if COVID-19 Spreads
In China, the government quarantined entire cities, and shut down all schools and businesses, in order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Many US states, cities, and counties have already declared a state of emergency, giving the government broad powers to fight the disease. This may mean banning public gatherings, or even shutting down schools and businesses.
Some schools and colleges are developing plans to allow students to take classes from home if the school closes. A number of US schools have already shut down when a student was known to be exposed to the virus. Italy, Iran, and parts of India have ordered all schools closed.
Businesses in the US are already starting to take some measures, such as banning business travel, cancelling company meetings, or asking people to work from home.
Not all companies are able to offer work-from-home options. If the virus becomes widespread in the area where you live, there is a very real possibility that your company may be forced to shut down. For people who depend on a regular paycheck to pay their bills, it’s a good idea to cut spending and plan for a possible shutdown that could last weeks.
Should You Be Worried?
In this article, we’ve explained why scientists are concerned. The COVID-19 spreads easily, and is more deadly than the flu. There is a real potential for a widespread outbreak that could result in the death of millions of people.
This is a serious risk – but hopefully one that can be avoided. It’s not time to panic!
Follow the guidelines listed above, and stay informed. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) publishes regular updates on the current status of the epidemic on their website at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html
- Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks, World Health Organization (WHO)
- Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary, Center for Disease Control (CDC)
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