Words such as “pathogen,” “pandemic” and “quarantine” are inherently scary. Yet for most people in the United States, fear is a natural but not necessary reaction to the spread of the new coronavirus from China. What’s the right reaction? Let’s call it alert but not alarmed.
As of Monday afternoon, there had been 11 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. The death toll in China had reached 361, amid more than 17,000 cases. About 150 cases have been reported in two dozen other countries. The virus causes fever, cough and shortness of breath.
As safety researchers and epidemiologists have pointed out in recent days, riding in a car or catching the flu presents more danger to Americans than this coronavirus. Yet the unknowns surrounding a fast-spreading and sometimes deadly new illness understandably inflame worries. Approaches to risky driving and flu bugs are already baked into our thinking and policymaking (you did get a flu shot, right?). By contrast the coronavirus confronts us with an unfamiliar and potentially lethal challenge, and obvious but as yet unanswered questions. Will it mutate as it spreads? How far will it reach and how deadly will it be? No one can say with assurance yet.
“We’re in a phase where a lot is unknown, and that makes it scary, and there might be a tendency to a strong reaction until more is learned,” Mark Mulligan, director of NYU Langone Health’s division of infectious diseases and immunology, told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s not a time for panic or overreaction but to follow the playbook.”
Government and health officials in this and many other countries have acted decisively. China has restricted movement in attempt to contain the virus. The U.S. State Department has urged Americans not to travel to China. American, United and Delta airlines are suspending service between the two nations.
So what should individuals at average risk do? The same common sense things that curtail the spread of other respiratory illnesses. Wash hands well and frequently, and stay home when you’re feeling sick or coughing. The virus spreads through the air; it’s not yet known if it can be caught by touching an infected surface. As with colds and flu, it makes sense to disinfect shared surfaces and avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
What not to do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: No need to wear face masks, and don’t project fear onto people of Asian descent.
The U.S. has a strong public health infrastructure, and this outbreak, already larger though apparently less deadly than the animal-to-human SARS virus before it, may well put it to the test. If we keep calm and carry on, with a heightened sense of precaution, we’re giving that system the best chance to do its job and protect all of us.