COVID-19 (novel coronavirus): the facts, the figures and how best to protect ourselves

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by Sarah Halfpenny

We need to talk calmly about COVID-19. It’s easy to let panic overtake us in these strange and unprecedented times. We see the supermarket shelves emptying and get bombarded by frightening new statistics about infection and death every day. While statistically you’re more likely to win Tattslotto than die because of COVID-19, it’s still important to know the facts and figures, and understand why we, as individuals, have a duty to keep ourselves healthy and how best to do this.

(This information is current as of 15 March 2020, but relevant websites are listed at the end of the article so you can seek out the latest information for yourself.)

Firstly, what is a pandemic?

When something is declared ‘pandemic’, this doesn’t mean widespread death – it actually refers to geographic spread, describing a disease that affects an entire country, several countries or the whole world.

What is novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and where did it originate?

The novel – meaning ‘new’ – coronavirus is a new strain of a large family of viruses, named for their shape – spikes that look like a crown, or a ‘corona’.

Coronaviruses cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as SARS, which you may remember hearing about in the media back in 2003.

The current outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was first reported from Wuhan, China, on 31 December 2019. It’s believed to have had its origins in animals (thought to be bats) and been passed on to humans, but by January 2020 had progressed to human-to-human transmission.

It was characterised as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March 2020.

What are the symptoms?

Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, it can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death.

What can I do to keep myself and my loved ones safe?

Firstly, don’t panic! Unnecessary worry causes psychological distress, which can be just as debilitating as physical symptoms from being ill. It’s important to remember that in around 80% of cases the disease causes no symptoms or is mild and people can recover at home.

Take these simple precautions to protect yourself:

  • Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and dry them thoroughly, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser with over 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching any part of your face as this is how the virus will enter your body, through your mucus membranes/bodily fluids. It will not infect you by merely sitting on your skin.
  • Don’t wear a face mask if you are well as it can trap pathogens around your face. The WHO recommend the use of masks only if a person is coughing or sneezing or if you are taking care of someone who is believed to have an infection.
  • Social distancing is a must – don’t shake hands or kiss other people. A wave can suffice!
  • If you cough or sneeze, use a tissue and dispose of it immediately then wash your hands, or cough/sneeze into your elbow.
  • Wipe down surfaces that are frequently touched using an alcohol-based solution (ethanol between 62-71%) or hydrogen peroxide (0.5%), which will both inactivate the virus in around one minute.
  • Stay away from social gatherings – this includes meetings, church services, private parties, festivals, entertainment venues, restaurants and sporting events.

Is there a vaccine?

There is not currently a vaccine but research into developing one has been undertaken by various agencies and is utilising previous work on SARS due to its use of the same enzyme (ACE2) to invade human cells.

A COVID-19 vaccine (a preventative) is unlikely to be available for a year, but on the plus side there are several antiviral medications that are now in clinical trials and may help patients currently suffering from the disease.

How contagious and deadly is COVID-19?

The fatality rate changes over time but in the current outbreak it is estimated at between 1% and 5%, but importantly this varies by age, country and other health conditions. Many of those who die of COVID-19 have pre-existing conditions, including hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

Worldwide, in those under the age of 50 the risk of death is less than 0.5%, while in those over the age of 70 it is more than 8%. In a study by the National Health Commission (NHC) of China, men had a death rate of 2.8% while women had a death rate of 1.7% No deaths had occurred in patients under the age of 10 as of 26 February 2020.

The incubation period ranges from two to 14 days, with an estimated median incubation period of five to six days, according to the WHO. If you are unlucky enough to catch the disease, you can expect it to last from a few days to weeks, but again, the duration will correlate with individuals’ ongoing health issues.

In Australia, the current statistics as of 15 March 2020 are:

Total cases: 283

Total deaths: 3

Active cases: 253

Total recovered: 27

Serious/Critical: 1

Total cases per 1-million population: 11.1

Why should we self-quarantine?

Self-isolation is the key to helping stem the rapid spread of COVID-19 and therefore avoiding overwhelming our medical system, which has finite resources in terms of the number of doctors and nurses available to work (remember some of them will get sick too!), the amount of hospital beds available and the vital equipment on hand that’s necessary to treat patients.

By limiting your movements out amongst society – even if you are unaffected – you’re curtailing the possibilities for new infections. You’re therefore not only protecting yourself, but also helping contain and limit the spread of the virus for everyone else, especially those who are at higher risk of suffering severe consequences from it.

Yes, quarantining will mean preparing for major disruptions to your daily routines, but there can be positives in this too – indulge in hobbies old and new, take the opportunity to connect with your loved ones, clean out that cupboard you’ve been meaning to get to for years, or spruce up the garden.

 If you do feel unwell or think you’ve been exposed to the virus, please call your GP to ask for advice immediately – don’t turn up at the clinic without their prior knowledge or you’ll risk transmitting the virus to others who are unprepared for your arrival.

Finally, remember that the majority of infections are mild and most people recover. If we stay calm and concentrate on looking out for each other, Australia can come through this with far less trauma and disruption than other countries. We’re all in this together!

Where can I get more information?

For Australian-specific advice and information visit Australian Government Department of Health

For general information about COVID-19, visit the World Health Organization website

For statistical updates of coronavirus cases, deaths and recoveries visit Worldometers

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