Twenty-nine countries, 78,811 people infected, and 2,462 are dead as a result of the coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of Feb. 23 data.

In just weeks, the 2019 novel coronavirus has gone from unknown to cases around the world. Hazmat suits, quarantined cruise ships and airport passenger screenings are just some of the effects the virus has had. 

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What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illnesses including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the common cold, according to the WHO. The virus’ name originates from crown-like spikes on its surface.

This particular strain, which was first reported from Wuhan, China in December, was labeled COVID-19 by the WHO on Feb. 11. ‘Co’ stands for corona, ‘vi’ stands for virus and ‘d’ stands for disease, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a media briefing.

Ann McDowell is an epidemiologist at the County of San Luis Obispo Public Health Department.

“About a third of all colds are caused by coronaviruses,” McDowell said. “Coronaviruses just come in many different flavors.”

COVID-19 appears to have made a species jump, “which is always of grave concern,” McDowell said. This means it was in an animal and then became pathogenic to humans who are “immunologically naive.”

“That jump has sort of bypassed most of our regular immune system,” McDowell said. “They’ve never seen this virus before, so they’re incredibly susceptible.”

Many patients early in the outbreak had connections to a seafood and live animal market, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Researchers at South China Agricultural University found that an animal called the pangolin may have been the intermediate host that spread the disease to humans, according to Medical News Today.

As of Feb. 24, there have been 35 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, according to the CDC

Nobody in the U.S. has died from the virus, and nearly 99 percent of confirmed cases are in China.

“The information that we’ve been given by China is that people who are dying are generally older or very young and have what we call ‘comorbid conditions,’ which means that you have an underlying medical condition of some other sort,” McDowell said.

It’s similar to the flu in the sense that people whose immune systems aren’t as strong as the rest of the population are the ones to ultimately succumb, according to McDowell.

“I think that the next few months will tell us the true tale,” she said.

But with so few cases in the U.S., people don’t need to be quite so concerned, McDowell said.

“What we would hate to see is community transmission that was undetected. We are not seeing that,” McDowell said. “And I’m hopeful that the population can see that we don’t have unchecked community transmission of this virus.”

Community transmission of the disease is what has made COVID-19 an epidemic in China.

Map by Kailey O’Connell

An epidemic

An epidemic is an uncontrolled spread of a disease across a nation, according to McDowell. This differs from a pandemic, which is a global uncontrolled spread.

“The only place we’re seeing coronavirus spread in uncontrolled fashion right now is mainland China,” McDowell said. “Does it have the potential to become a pandemic? Absolutely. Are we doing everything we can to stop that? Absolutely.”

This includes U.S. regulations regarding flights from China. 

“There are very strict federal quarantine rules in effect right now, people flying in from mainland China can only arrive at 11 U.S. airports,” she said. “All of those airports are staffed by the U.S. Public Health Service who are screening every passenger who has a travel history to China.”

Two of the 11 airports flights from China are allowed to land in are in California, according to the Department of Homeland Security: San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.

If COVID-19 comes to Cal Poly

There are procedures and policies in place for the event that the university is notified of any communicable diseases that pose a risk to campus, according to Hadaway-Mellis. 

A “cascade of communications and interactions” would be started with departments on campus such as the Department of Emergency Management and Environmental Health and Safety, she said.

If vaccinations or prophylactic antibiotics were needed, there are procedures in place that would initiate points of distribution or “pop-up clinics” in collaboration with San Luis Obispo County Public Health, Hadaway-Mellis said. 

The California Department of Public Health is recommending colleges and universities treat COVID-19 like any other communicable disease, according to Hadaway-Mellis.

“Any of the campuses are being encouraged, that if they do have a known case, that that person would be isolated and immediate notification to our public health department,” Hadaway-Mellis said. 

Cal Poly would likely be notified by the county public health department, as the university doesn’t have the testing availability, according to Hadaway-Mellis. Recommendations would then be made on how to keep the infected student and others safe, she said. 

While COVID-19 is the virus currently dominating the news, it’s not the only one the public should be concerned about. 

“At this point you should be more worried about the flu, based on the information that we have. [COVID-19]’s potentially more dangerous than the common cold, but so far, at least for here in the U.S., influenza is much more dangerous,” Cal Poly Medical Director Aaron Baker said. “It is much better to have more vigorous a response, anticipating what could be happening, than to regret not having a vigorous response.” 

There were an estimated 12 to 30 thousand flu deaths in the United States between Oct. 1 and Feb. 1, according to the CDC

Currently, COVID-19 is in the “learning about what this is going to ultimately look like phase,” which is why they’re carefully tracking each case in the U.S. and encouraging preventative measures, according to Baker. 

If the virus mutates again and becomes more infectious, “it could be a bigger problem,” so it’s a matter of prevention right now, he said. 

A vaccine for COVID-19 is probably a year away, according to McDowell. 

COVID-19 can be spread by aerosols, which is “copying something from you to somebody else,” Baker said. The virus is best transmitted by applying it to the nose, the susceptible organ, he said. 

“Let’s think of now how we would not get that, which would be to not generate aerosols, cough into your sleeve, which would be to not leave any infectious particles in a public space,” Baker said. 

Baker gave several other recommendations for this. 

“So wash your hands, wear a mask, wear gloves if you’re sick, stay home, keep it isolated to yourself,” he said. 

Hadaway-Mellis recommended students look beyond “big and flashy” headlines about the disease. 

“We’ve got really smart students,” Hadaway-Mellis said. “I would just encourage them to get all of the facts and be really well-informed and be able to share that information out with other people who may have some of the same concerns.”

This story has been updated to include total confirmed cases as of Feb. 23. 

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