In December of last year, a seemingly innocuous disease began to spread throughout Wuhan, a city of 11 million residents in the Hubei province of China. Initially, symptoms were similar to those of the common cold, and doctors were confident that traditional treatment methods would suffice. But patients, of which there were more and more, showed no signs of improvement, and on January 11, 2020, the Chinese government announced the first death resulting from what has now been dubbed coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19. Since then, the malady has spread to at least 48 countries, infecting over 80,000 people and killing close to 3,000. Yesterday, the U.S. announced its first case without a link to travel abroad and the Center for Disease Control declared that mass outbreak is essentially inevitable. So what does this mean?
How deadly is COVID-19?
According to recent studies, about 2.3 percent of infected individuals die. 20 percent of cases become severe enough to require protracted hospital treatment.
How does that compare to other epidemics?
While the death rate for COVID-19 is relatively low (SARS in 2003 killed 10 percent and MERS in 2012 killed 30 percent), it’s the contagiousness of this new coronavirus that makes it so threatening. It spreads about as easily as the common cold and can be contracted if someone who’s infected coughs around you or if you merely touch a surface that an infected person coughed on hours earlier. It seems it may also spread through the air, meaning you might not be safe even if you’re in a different room. Moreover, because the incubation period is two weeks, it’s possible to spread the disease before you even know you have it.
Why is it so dangerous?
COVID-19 is viral, meaning it can’t be cured with antibiotics. And unlike the common cold, this coronavirus lodges itself deep within the lungs, which leads to pneumonia much faster. In a bad year in the U.S., only about 0.1 percent of people who contract the common flu die from it.
So is there any treatment?
Severe symptoms can be mitigated through the use of ventilators and secondary bacterial forms of pneumonia that arise as a result of COVID-19 can be prevented with antibiotics, but there is no known cure for the disease itself. Experts project that it could take a year or more for a vaccine to be made available to the public due to the rigorous testing that any new form of medicine must undergo.
What does the long-term picture in the U.S. look like?
Due to the lack of a cure, scientists are predicting that this coronavirus will be at least as infectious as Spanish influenza of 1918, which affected about 30% of the American population. Some models forecast that as much as 50 or 60 percent of the population could contract COVID-19 before a vaccine is released. Even at a fatality rate of 2.3%, that would mean 3.5 to 4.5 million deaths, but as hospital beds and ventilators become scarcer and global medicine supply lines are closed off, that number could increase. In Hubei, the authoritarian Chinese government quickly moved to quarantine the entire city of Wuhan, but it’s unclear if such a solution would be feasible in the U.S.
Who’s most at risk?
Curiously, it seems as though children are more resistant to COVID-19 than healthy adults, likely because their immune systems are already firing on all cylinders to combat less deadly diseases like the common cold, whereas older people are somewhat out of shape when it comes to fighting viruses. COVID-19 seems to primarily target people above the age of 30, especially smokers, and becomes more deadly the older you get.
What can I do to prepare for a mass COVID-19 outbreak?
There are a number of steps you can take to increase the likelihood that you’re not affected by this rapidly spreading epidemic.
Wash your hands regularly.
Avoid touching your face.
Stock up on food items and essential medicines in case of shortages.
Avoid traveling to places where COVID-19 has already hit.
Mentally adjust to the reality that you may be forced to stay home for extended periods of time.
Stay home if you’re feeling sick. Missing a few days of school or work just to be safe is preferable to infecting everyone around you. If you try to be a hero, you might very quickly become a villain.
Share this information with your friends, loved ones, and anyone that will listen.
Ideally, this entire article will prove unnecessary and overly pessimistic and a miracle drug will be developed within the next few weeks, but for now, it’s time to accept that we’re up against the most serious pandemic in recent history and begin preparing for mass infection in our communities. Complacency and inertia are the best ways to ensure that COVID-19 reaches its full potential deadliness.