By CHHS Extern Benita David-Akoro
Over the last few weeks, the novel coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV has received significant media attention. 2019-nCoV is a coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, but now with confirmed cases in at least twenty other countries. Yesterday, the World Health Organization announced it was declaring the 2019-nCoV outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a declaration it declined to make just over a week ago. The decision to declare a PHEIC coincided with a sharp rise in cases and a spread of the virus to other countries; WHO’s director-general cited concerns with the virus’ spread into countries with less-robust healthcare systems as one reason for declaring a PHEIC.
Globally, there is need to take action: as of January 31, 2020, the Johns Hopkins 2019-nCoV surveillance tracker reports 9,976 confirmed cases with an estimated 213 fatalities since it was first detected in December 2019. These numbers now surpass the November 2002 to July 2003 outbreak of SARs. In that outbreak, public health officials reported 8,098 infections of SARS globally, with 774 SARS-related deaths.
Public health officials worldwide agree that swift and effective measures are necessary to curtail the spread of the virus. Countries with reported cases of infections have taken various steps – from investigation to screening, quarantine and risk communication. In the US, the CDC is taking measures to ensure the early and immediate detection of the virus, including issuing a level 3 travel warning for China—recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China—and implementing public health entry screenings at 20 airports and land crossings.
Many affected countries, including the United States, have learned significant lessons from previous outbreaks and have robust public health preparedness & response plans at the ready. Currently, the U.S. has identified 6 cases, five of which were acquired outside of the U.S., and one which was transmitted from an infected patient to their spouse. Elsewhere, countries have taken sweeping measures to control the virus’ spread: Chinese authorities have declared a quarantine in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, and imposed travel restrictions in other smaller cities in the province. Russia has closed its border with China; and some airlines have suspended flights into the country.
Certainly, the 2019-nCoV outbreak has already affected travel, economic activity, and global markets. Perhaps of more concern are the shortages of medical supplies, such as surgical masks, gloves, and disinfectants, as well as food and other household supplies. While some preparation is important, panic can lead to unintended consequences: as seen during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, surge in demand of personal protective equipment by the general public and even officials purchasing resources in preparation, can create shortages for responders and healthcare providers caring for patients in the affected areas. Additionally, misinformation about the effectiveness of prevention methods, such as disposable surgical facemasks, may lead to underutilization of more effective prevention methods, such as hand washing.
The spread of the 2019-nCoV is certainly cause for concern in a novel virus outbreak, and precautions and planning are essential to curtail the virus’ spread. Many U.S. health officials, however, are reminding people that domestically, seasonal influenza currently remains a much bigger concern, which, comparatively, kills 650,000 people worldwide every year, and in the U.S. alone this season, is responsible for 8,000 deaths. And, of course, it’s an important reminder that as you go about your day, whether you are looking at potential policies and plans for implementation if the 2019-nCoV spreads to your jurisdiction, or whether you are going about your regular day: washing your hands remains the best way to prevent the spread of viruses—whether it be the flu, or the novel coronavirus.