The World Health Organization’s emergency committee on the new coronavirus met January 30 and declared the 2019-nCoV outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, requiring a potentially international coordinated response, yet local experts said people in St. Louis should be more concerned about influenza. 

If you are wondering how to guard against the new coronavirus strain that is circulating around the world right now that first appeared in Wuhan, China, it may be as simple as keeping your hands washed and clean – and out of your face, covering coughs and avoiding coughing from others – which is what you should do to avoid picking up or sharing cold and flu germs.

“Unless the people from St. Louis are traveling to an area where there is a novel coronavirus disease, they would not otherwise have to worry about becoming infected, unless they are exposed to someone who traveled there and brought it back,” said infectious disease specialist Sharon Frey, M.D., clinical director of the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development.

“The other thing to know about coronavirus is that most coronaviruses that humans get infected with, they just cause cold-like symptoms.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention said coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS and SARS. That’s exactly what happened with the novel Wuhan China coronavirus, referred to in the medical community as 2019-nCoV. It evolved enough to jump species from animal to human infection.  

Frey said this coronavirus causes pneumonia, which can be deadly.

“This one mostly causes fever and just not feeling well,” Frey said. “It can cause a cough; it can cause pneumonia – and those are the cases, developing severe pneumonia, where people die.”

Infectious disease experts say people can spread this coronavirus can spread before they show symptoms of the disease.

And while the CDC considers this to be a very serious public health threat, based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time. There have only been a few confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the U.S., and on January 30, the first case of Wuhan coronavirus spread from person-to-person contact is a case in the Chicago area. That 2019-nCoV patient has no history of travel to Wuhan, but shares a household with the patient diagnosed with new coronavirus infection on January 21. Both patients are said to be in stable condition. CDC is working closely with Illinois health officials and other local partners. A CDC team has been on the ground since the first 2019-nCoV-positive case was identified and is supporting an ongoing investigation to determine whether further spread with this virus has occurred. Previously, the virus in the U.S. was limited to persons who were associated with travel to Wuhan, China.

“Given what we’ve seen in China and other countries with the novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected some person-to-person spread in the U.S.,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D. “We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low.”

The CDC said limited person-to-person spread with 2019-nCoV has been seen among close contacts of infected travelers in other countries where imported cases from China have been detected. Whoever, the full picture of how easily and sustainably the 2019-nCoV spreads is still unclear. 

The World Health Organization’s emergency committee on the new coronavirus met January 30 and declared the 2019-nCoV outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), requiring a potentially international coordinated response. 

While precautions against the 2019-nCoV are being taken in locations around the globe, like what happened during  SARS and MERS outbreaks in previous years, Frey said the new coronavirus currently does not pose as big a threat here as influenza viruses circulating in the U.S.

“I think people can relax. I think they should be more concerned about influenza,” Frey said. “There have already been at least 15 million cases of influenza this season; there’s been 14,000 hospitalizations and 8,200 deaths – 54 of which were children.”

The H1N1 and Influenza B strains are the ones she said have been most prevalent this season.

CDC weekly surveillance has flu estimates even higher from October 1, 2019 to January 18: 15 million to 21 million cases of influenza; 7 million to 10 million medical visits; 140,000 to 250,000 hospitalizations; and 8,200 to 20,000 flu deaths.

Frey said that it is not too late to get a flu shot.

“We have a few more months of flu season,” she said. “People forget – as long as flu is circulating like it is, people should get flu shots.”

While the free flu clinics took place in the area last fall, clinics, doctor’s offices and pharmacy clinics have influenza vaccines.

The CDC said is likely there will be more cases of 2019-nCoV reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, including more person-to-person spread, and the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus.

Right now, 2019-nCoV has not been found to be spreading widely in the United States, so the CDC deems the immediate risk from this virus to the general public to be low. However, risk is dependent on exposure, and people who are in contact with people with 2019-nCoV are likely to be at greater risk of infection and should take the precautions outlined in CDC’s guidance for preventing spread in homes and communities.

For the general public, no additional precautions are recommended at this time beyond the simple daily precautions that everyone should always take. It is currently flu and respiratory disease season, and CDC recommends getting vaccinated, taking everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs, and taking flu antivirals if prescribed.

“Wash your hands frequently. People should cover their face into their elbow when they cough or sneeze. Wash your hands. Keep your hands out of your face, because what do you do with your hands and face? You’re rubbing your eyes; you’re rubbing your mouth – people rubbing their noses. These are good ways to get flu,” Frey said.

“And, if people are sick, they should not expose other people to them. If they are sick, they should not expose the elderly, pregnant women, those at high risk for flu disease and mortality, the very, very young, people who are immune-compromised – stay away from them.”

Right now, CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.

“Hygiene is everything,” she said. “Respiratory hygiene and just good handwashing – those are the big, big things.”

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