The toll of the coronavirus outbreak in China keeps worsening, with the infections exceeding tens of thousands and the deaths spiking toward 1,000, also claiming the first American and Japanese lives of people in the disease epicenter of Wuhan.
The illness’ most significant harms continue to afflict China, particularly its central province of Hubei and regional capital Wuhan.
But the infection has raised global alarms, in part because its death toll, for example, has far exceeded in China the fatalities recorded with the 2003 disease incident involving Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. That infection killed hundreds in China.
The coronavirus has spread globally, with a dozen cases in the United States, a handful in Europe and Australia, and several dozen in Japan, where authorities have quarantined a cruise ship offshore due to passengers possibly carrying the virus. Deaths outside of China have been few.
Global travel has been disrupted, with major Western airlines canceling services to China, with undetermined resumption dates. The Chinese government has brought its nation to a standstill, keeping up, in effect, a quarantine of rare scope and affecting tens of millions of people. Chinese are restricted from internal and overseas travel, creating huge concern for tourism across the globe, including in major U.S. cities popular with booming numbers of tourists from the mainland, like Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. With virus fears rising, cruise ships are facing cancellations and bars on entry to ports, particularly in Japan and Asia.
U.S. corporations have offshored their products manufacture to China with alacrity, seeking to reduce costs and take advantage of cheaper labor and less regulation overseas. The challenge may come, though, because medical device and supply makers, as well as Big Pharma, are among the many enterprises that soon may experiences supply shortages as Chinese workers can’t get to factories and labs.
Hospitals and medical suppliers say, for now, they hope they can limit problems, for example, by careful use of face masks and surgical gear — goods in hot demand and hoarding, particularly by consumers who would benefit little from their use. (Instead, fight infections, experts say, by washing those hands, covering up when sneezing and coughing, and staying home if ill and keeping the kids home, too, if they’re not well).
Doctors and hospitals are expressing growing concern about the coronavirus’ effects because the seasonal flu is peaking and hitting Americans hard, with CNN reporting this from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“The CDC estimates that [with] this flu season, which started on Sept. 29, there have been at least 22 million cases of the illness in the U.S., 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths.”
U.S. officials, who have offered the Chinese expertise, supplies, and financial aid to battle the coronavirus, have been watching this year’s domestic flu infections, because both the A and B strains seem to sickening patients but hitting them at different times (A first, then B).
The flu monitoring and its uncertainties only underscores the challenges for medical scientists and public health officials in dealing with viral outbreaks.
Because of the autocratic and secretive ways of the centralized Chinese communist government, experts are expressing uncertainty about the depth and accuracy of data about the coronavirus outbreak, including how long it is running and how it is affecting patients, especially how it is spreading and who it affects.
The Chinese, online, have expressed their fury over their government’s coronavirus response, especially the official ostracizing of Li Wenliang, a young doctor who tried to warn early about the illness (photo above). He died battling it.
Though researchers say they are sharing information in heartening and unprecedented fashion, particularly about the virus’ genetic makeup (information that will be invaluable in potentially producing a vaccine against it, perhaps in a year’s time), disease details eluding experts have left them puzzling about the outbreak’s course. This includes increasing doubts about large quarantines to try to deal with the disease.
For now, older individuals with existing health problems have been the most of those who have been sickened the worst and died. Children, so far, have suffered far less than grown-ups. A recent examination of a small number of coronavirus cases — just over 100 — has produced distressing information about caring for those with the disease: Just under half of the infections were spread from patients to other patients and their nurses and doctors.
Will the coronavirus blow up and get far worse? As some experts on epidemics do their calculations, they are beginning to ask if this disease may spread wide but not kill as many as some infections might. Could the coronavirus become, like certain strains of flu or the cold, common and recurring with a relatively lower potential to kill, particularly if patients can get early, sustained, western-industrialized style intensive care?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the significant benefits they can enjoy by staying healthy and out of the U.S. health care system. It has its own serious problems with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses that patients would do well to avoid.
This winter, even more than ever, we all may wish to commit to the common-sense steps to boost our well-being: We can aim to eat in healthful fashion and not too much. We can keep moving, engaging in vigorous exercise if it is appropriate. We can avoid smoking and vaping and control our use of alcohol and intoxicating substances. We can get the sleep we need, reduce our stress, and get the vaccinations recommended for us.
We can avoid damaging panic, fear-mongering, xenophobia, and racism in our views of a health crisis. We also can support public health officials around the world as they battle diseases. Here’s hoping that the tide turns fast for this Chinese outbreak.