Epidemiologist explains what we know about COVID-19

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - 10:47pm

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Design by Aya Salim

What is coronavirus? Where did it start?

COVID-19 is the most recently discovered strain of coronavirus. It was first identified in humans in Wuhan, China in December of 2019. Coronaviruses, a large family of zoonotic viruses, cause infections that span a wide spectrum of severity, from common colds to more severe respiratory diseases. 

Older populations or people with existing medical problems are most at risk for serious infections. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and dry cough, however, other flu-like symptoms can occur and in extreme cases, patients experience respiratory complications and trouble breathing. Most people can recover from a COVID-19 infection without intense treatment. 

How can I avoid contracting coronavirus?

COVID-19 spreads via small droplets from the mouth and nose that are circulated through the air when infected people breathe or cough. When an infected person coughs or exhales the droplets can be inhaled by individuals within a three-foot radius. People can also become infected by coming into contact with surfaces — such as doorknobs and railings — that droplets land on and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes. The risk for contracting COVID-19 can be lowered by taking precautions including washing hands frequently, avoiding contact with your face, practicing responsible respiratory hygiene, staying home when sick and avoiding others who are sick.

Is the virus in Michigan? 

On March 10, two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state of Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency. Testing for COVID-19 is occurring at the state level for patients who are exhibiting strong symptoms of the virus and with likely exposure due to travel history.

Who should be worried about coronavirus?

COVID-19 infections in children and young adults are generally mild. It can cause serious illness in some cases, with about one-fifth of infected people requiring hospital care. The demographics most at risk for contracting a serious infection as a result of COVID-19 are elderly people and those who have underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart problems. 

What should I do if I feel sick?

Individuals experiencing cough, fever or difficulty breathing should seek medical attention. People who feel sick with other symptoms should stay home from classes or work to decrease the risk of spreading any infection to others. If you feel sick it is best to practice self-isolation or social distancing and avoid public areas and transportation, minimizing contact with other people, wearing a facemask when around others to avoid spreading droplets and practicing good hygiene such as frequent hand washing and cleaning high-touch surfaces. 

What resources are available on campus right now?

As during a normal school year, Counseling and Psychological Services, housed in the Union, will continue to provide counseling and support to students. The English Language Institute and International Institute will work with international students to develop a plan for the rest of the semester if needed. University Health Service will continue providing care to students. But if you feel sick, stay home and call UHS or your primary care physician. 

What is the difference between social distancing, isolation and quarantine?

According to Joseph Eisenberg, chair and professor of epidemiology, “isolation is being three to six feet away from people so that particles being emitted won’t reach you. Quarantine means being alone and not in contact with people. Isolation is more about an ill patient being kept away from the population.” Social distancing, on the other hand, refers to making a concerted effort to stay away from others to lower the possibility of contracting the virus. Eisenberg said all three efforts are beneficial. “All measures help slow the spread of the disease,” Eisenberg said. 

Is social distancing really an effective way to stop the spread of the virus?

Eisenberg said much remains unknown about how the virus is spread.

“We don’t know a lot about the virus, we theorize it is via droplet spread,” Eisenberg said. “There are two ways this works: On an individual level, you are less likely to become sick and then on a population level, by reducing the efficiency of the spread.”

How can you tell if you have symptoms for the coronavirus or the flu?

While they may have similar symptoms at first, coronavirus is marked by fever and coughing that has the possibility to turn into pneumonia. While a vaccine exists for the flu and there is antiviral medication dedicated to treating the flu, neither is available for the coronavirus at this moment since it is so new. 

Are measures like washing hands and maintaining a six-foot distance really effective?

Eisenberg said these measures can help limit the spread of infectious diseases. 

“Slow the spread so that even though you have the same number of cases, the peak is smaller but hospitals are less overworked, which is important because hospitals are built to capacity based on the flu season,” Eisenberg said. 

What measures should high and low-risk individuals take?

According to Eisenberg, “high-risk individuals should be more careful with social distancing. It is critical that they not be around big crowds.” 

For lower-risk people, Eisenberg said, they “probably won’t have a major illness but they can contribute to the transmission. Even though students aren’t high-risk they would be effective in its transmission. So for example, if you’re traveling a lot you might not want to visit your 85-year-old grandma.”

How can we learn from other affected countries?

Eisenberg said South Korea, where strict isolation and social distancing measures were taken to prevent infection, provides an example of the path the U.S. should take in slowing the spread of the virus. 

“If we can prevent it from being too accelerated we can prevent widespread transmission,” Eisenberg said. “We want to look more like South Korea and less like Italy. Especially now in this critical time period, where cases are just emerging, we don’t wanna overwhelm the hospitals and really unroll widespread testing: identify the clusters faster and then it’s a bit more targeted.”

Is there a time period for how long the virus will continue to spread?

The answer is still unclear. 

“It won’t be surprising if it is seasonal like other coronaviruses, but this is a unique, emerging pathogen and we are still unsure,” Eisenberg said. 

Reporters Hannah Mackay and Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at mackayh@umich.edu and varshakv@umich.edu