Note: I’m a commentator, not a doctor. There’s a reason I don’t work in a hospital, and it’s not just because I’m squeamish. When in doubt, consult a doctor; this article is just general information.
Yesterday, the CDC released a guidance document on the COVID-19 outbreak. It tells us… well, honestly it tells us that they really don’t know much. It’s deadlier than the normal flu outbreak by at least a factor of 10; up to one case in five may require hospitalization. If you’re old and chronically ill, you’re much more likely to die. Oh, and those masks? Probably won’t keep you from catching it, but if used properly might keep you from spreading it.
And that’s about it.
So… yeah. Not exactly the most informative press release ever. Most of what they tell us is what they don’t know. Which makes sense, because this early in an outbreak most of what we know is what we don’t know. This is particularly true because China is… well, they can be flexible with the truth sometimes when it’s a matter of their national interest, so we probably can’t absolutely trust the numbers their government is releasing.
What we do know, however, is about other similar outbreaks. This is an illness that can cross between species; those have predictable patterns. So long as bats and pangolins are the only ones that can catch it, things are simple outside their ranges. However, some similar viruses can be caught by large livestock like pigs or horses; if that should happen, a major mutation might occur causing a severity increase. At present this possibility is considered remote.
Likewise, we’re told that this virus (SARS-CoV-2) can probably exist in a reservoir within a living creature, similar in concept if not method to tuberculosis. If true, this could result in reinfection or the creation of low-level carriers within the population, extending the duration of the outbreak. One auto-reinfection is currently suspected.
The infected population outside of China is still too small and too recent to give us firm answers with regard to transmissibility and mortality. We do know that it can pass from person to person through casual contact, and we presume it’s airborne. It’s also likely infectious within a patient even before major symptoms develop. All this combines to indicate that a pandemic is likely. On the other hand, the Diamond Princess cases give us some data; in that atypical cross-section of humanity, four in five cases didn’t require advanced treatment and there were only four so deaths recorded so far.
Given all this, we can presume that the direct impact of this will be probably far more than in the average flu season but far less than, say, the Spanish Influenza of 1918.
The indirect consequences, however, are likely to be severe — especially economically. Chinese exports are drying up, and their internal markets are in chaos. This will certainly have a global impact; Chinese trade is interlinked closely with Japan and much of Asia, and there’s a significant chance that it will cause a major downturn in American and European markets in the short term.
Over a longer time, service industries are likely to see problems stemming from both a lack of custom and of employees. Restaurants, delivery, and fast food will take a hit for a few weeks. Mass transit facilities may get shut down or restricted for a time. We’re already seeing an artificial shortage in medical masks as profiteers are gearing up for highly profitable resale through Amazon; this is likely to continue for a few weeks at least.
The bottom line for the individual is pretty straightforward: Stock up on necessities; lay in a supply of bottled water, canned foods, and dry goods. Buy some extra toilet paper, spare lightbulbs, batteries, an extra month’s prescription meds, and so on. Make plans to keep your kids out of school or daycare for an extended period, even if that means not going to work for a while yourself. Yes, it’ll suck, but it’s better than risking expensive hospital bills or more expensive funerals.
Note that I’m not saying you should take all these steps right now. That one’s up to you, of course, but panic helps nobody, and we’re not in a pandemic yet. The high number on estimated cases in the U.S. is in the hundreds, and most are probably under some isolation. A major outbreak in this country might never happen; we’ve got decent sanitation and nutrition. But it can’t hurt to be prepared, and to make some plans just in case.
Finally, take a moment to review these CDC guidelines on what to do if you get sick. This is good advice for the flu as well, so you should know it anyway.
A note on conspiracy theories:
No. Nature does this sort of thing just fine without human intervention. I saw a quote today that read, “How did Lysol know about Coronavirus before 2020?!”
People, I know you’re really stupid. But come on.
Note: I’ll attempt to keep this current as we learn more. For example, this morning a unique paper was published detailing the early pathology; apparently, it causes lung lesions first and scar tissue forms early, physically blocking some infection reservoirs. This could well explain both the early lack of symptoms yet communicability as well as the curious persistence of the viral infection.
Update: CDC has taken down their national outbreak map as of 27 February.
02 March: Outbreaks declared in Washington state and Toronto; infected patient released early by CDC. Europe upgrades risk to “Moderate to High”.
State Of Emergency declared in Washington state and Florida.
Keep checking back and I’ll keep this updated.