As coronavirus spreads, aggressive safeguards — not panic — should, too
A viral outbreak in central China — centered in its province of Hubei and its largest city of Wuhan — officially has burgeoned into a global health emergency.
The United States also has reacted to the pneumonia-like infection with its toughest warnings about travel to China and restrictions on Americans returning from it, as well as temporary bans on non-Americans entering this country after recent visits to areas around Hubei and especially Wuhan. Major U.S. airlines have canceled China flights and retail operations in China of global enterprises like Starbucks and Apple have shut down for now.
Global markets have been rattled by worries about the wider spread of the latest outbreak of coronavirus (see recent map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)— an infection from a large family of illnesses that includes the common cold, as well as SARS (aka Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
The coronavirus has been blamed in China for thousands of infections and deaths in the hundreds. Cases now have been identified around the globe, in Australia, Japan, Europe, Canada, and a handful in the United States.
Public health officials, especially in China, have tried to take aggressive steps to curb the virus’ spread and lessen its damage while controlling rising concern, so it does not tip into panic. This is a tough task.
China, an officially Communist state with centralized rule, has shut down much of the country, effectively creating a quarantine of rare scope affecting tens of millions of people. This has occurred at a peak travel and festive time across Asia — the marking of the lunar new year and the Year of the Rat.
Chinese officials have drawn fire already, internally and from the global community, for its coronavirus response, hampered by resource gaps, including a lack of enough medicines and hospital beds.
In turn, though, the world also has witnessed ugly or sketchy xenophobic or racist reactions to Chinese and other people of Asian descent. Japan, which has seen a significant increase in tourism from China, has seen both a number of confirmed coronavirus infections and a rise in signs and incidents involving hostility to Chinese. This also has occurred in spots like Italy, where those of Asian descent have been shunned and treated badly. India has raised eyebrows by telling China — which is seeing worldwide problems with consumers hoarding face masks (of dubious infection-fighting value) — that its stocks from its major manufacturing of such protective gear will stay in the subcontinent and not be shared.
In the United States, collegians, who live atop of each other in close quarters and with the dubious hygiene that can be common among those of a certain age, have been expressing heightened concern about coronavirus infection. The illness also has stirred sharp responses in Southern California’s big and sprawling immigrant communities whose members, particularly in the heavily Chinese San Gabriel Valley, have frequent travel and contact with China. Face masks have become common and difficult to buy in drug and hardware stores. Major Lunar Year events have been canceled or postponed.
At a U.S. air base in Southern California, hundreds of Americans airlifted from Wuhan are experiencing a public health rarity in this country: They remain in a two-week quarantine, this after undergoing testing at an Alaskan refueling stop and on arrival in Riverside. Those locked down say they are subjected to further tests but have been treated well, are resting comfortably in the balmy weather, and grateful to be stateside.
U.S. officials plan more airlifts of Americans stranded in Wuhan, as well as quarantines for citizens returning from China after this weekend. Non-Americans, except those who are related to citizens, will be denied U.S. entry if they have traveled recently to China. The numbers of American returnees may plummet after the government issued its most stringent warnings against China travel. Returnees from China will be funneled to seven airports — in Honolulu, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Newark, and Atlanta — that will be set up for enhanced health screening and to inform individuals if they face quarantine.
The Trump Administration and medical experts have stressed that, for now, the risks posed by the coronavirus to the United States are low and that they hope that robust public health measures will keep it that way.
As with the flu — an infection that rages even now and is far more ubiquitous (infecting tens of millions and hospitalizing hundreds of thousands) and deadly (killing tens of thousands of Americans annually) — a few steps can be key: Cover up when sneezing or coughing (those face masks can be helpful here). Wash your hands, thoroughly and often. Stay home if you’re sick and keep ailing youngsters out of school and at home, too.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the benefits they can enjoy by staying healthy and far away from 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.
The basics of better health are well known. Eat in healthful fashion and not too much. Keep moving, with vigorous exercise if you can. Control your stress, use of alcohol and other intoxicants. Don’t smoke or vape. Make it a priority to get lots of needed and restful sleep. And get those recommended vaccinations.
Yes, inoculations, as with any medical treatment, carry risks. These are far outweighed by their benefits, especially in the widespread “herd” immunity that can take force if high numbers of individuals in a group get their shots. The protections that various shots offer also can vary. But who doesn’t want to better their odds of staying well?
Medical scientists are optimistic about the potential to develop a vaccination against 2019-nCoV, the current viral infection that also needs a better name. It may take a while, and, no matter how this outbreak runs its course, public health officials need to sink time and resources in the vaccine and to get ahead of viral illnesses like these.
Americans, of course, got a sad and tragic exposure with recent measles outbreaks to the consequences of failing to prevent and then to stamp down the return of historic infectious outbreaks. By the way, why get shots and campaign against old ills like measles? New research indicates that not only can cases turn debilitating and even deadly, they also can have sustained damages, causing the body’s own systems to forget how to battle disease — causing “immunity amnesia.”
Here’s hoping that everyone who reads this stays as healthy as possible, and that productive and robust public health responses — not panic — rein in the coronavirus as quickly as possible and with as little additional harm.