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COVID-19, the Coronavirus, Now a Pandemic

March 11, 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) today declared the new coronavirus circulating the globe is a pandemic. So far, COVID-19, the official name for the novel coronavirus, is in 114 countries, affecting almost 120,000 people. Over 4,000 people have died from the infection so far. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a regularly updated page for numbers in the United States. Currently, the U.S. reports 938 cases with 29 deaths in the U.S.; 49 others with the infection were repatriated to the country.

Coronavirus media briefing

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the current director-general of the WHO, addressed the media earlier today. The WHO expects to see many more cases and deaths around the world. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” he said to journalists. He pointed out that this is the first time that a coronavirus of any type has been the cause of a pandemic.

How is a pandemic different from an epidemic?

A pandemic is a disease that spreads throughout the world, like the Spanish flu in the early 1900s. An epidemic is also a disease outbreak, but one that attacks many people in a community at the same time. An epidemic is more localized, like the measles outbreak in Samoa in late 2019.

Sepsis Alliance Board Member Karin Molander, MD, said it’s important to realize that these terms do not imply there is a high death toll. “We frequently have epidemics of the flu every 1 to 3 years,” she explained. “The last [flu epidemic] occurred in 2017-2018 winter season. The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, also called the swine flu, affected between 11-21% of the global population but had a case fatality rate of 0.1-0.08%. By labeling the current outbreak a pandemic, this can help mobilize additional resources through the CDC and WHO.”

Does the pandemic designation change anything?

The WHO has been reluctant to call the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic because of what the word can do. “Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus,” Ghebreyesus explained. “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

The difference between COVID-19 and influenza (flu)

Both COVID-19 and influenza are infectious respiratory viruses. Both can cause similar symptoms: fever, cough, aching muscles, and fatigue. They also both can lead to pneumonia, which in turn can trigger sepsis. However, the flu has many different viruses. This is why the seasonal flu vaccine changes from year to year. Only one virus causes COVID-19.

Another difference: how COVID-19 and influenza pass from person to person. Both spread through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing. These droplets contaminate surfaces, including the skin on your hand. But experts believe that COVID-19 may also be spread through the air, lingering after the infected person is no longer close by.

Dr. Molander explained that this virus can survive on hard surfaces for a week, much like the cold virus. The flu virus can only live for a day. Also, COVID-19 can incubate in your body for 1 to 14 days before causing symptoms. This is different from the flu or cold. Those will cause illness within 1 to 2 days of exposure. This means infected people are more likely  to stay home from school and work when they are the most contagious.

Preventing spread of COVID-19

If you have plans to attend a large gathering, check for cancellations. For smaller groups where people are meeting face-to-face, experts discourage traditional handshakes and kisses. There is a strong emphasis  on proper hand washing and disinfecting common surfaces. Unfortunately, you can be infected without showing symptoms, so it is possible to spread the virus without realizing it.

Some experts say that it is inevitable that a large proportion of people will eventually become infected with COVID-19. However, if doctors can slow the spread so not so many people become ill at the same time, resources may not be stretched beyond limits. This is called “flattening the curve.” Having many cases all within a short period may require more medical resources than are available. But if infection transmission is delayed, this stretches the period when people become ill. Not as many people need medical care all at the same time.

Why everyone should be careful

Many people ask, via social media, why they should worry about COVID-19. They have heard that people who have chronic health conditions, impaired immune systems, and/or are older, are at highest risk. Most deaths have occurred within these groups. However, people who are healthy can still experience complications or they may not have any symptoms and unknowingly spread the infection to those who are more vulnerable.

If you believe you are infected

Contact your local health authority if you think you have COVID-19 or were exposed to it. They will tell you how to proceed. Quarantine yourself until instructed otherwise. If you start to show possible signs of worsening or of sepsis, call 911 and tell them not only that you suspect sepsis, but that you believe you have been infected with COVID-19. The first responders can then be prepared and take appropriate precautions.

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To learn more about infection prevention, visit Sepsis Basics: Prevention.