COVID-19 Death Toll Tops 2,600—Is It Time to Worry?

COVID-19 Death Toll Tops 2,600—Is It Time to Worry?

Understand the latest on the rapidly spreading, potentially dangerous coronavirus.

COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, intensifying fears about infection and a global pandemic. On February 22, the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed concern about new cases of the coronavirus in Iran, South Korea, Italy and other parts of the world. "The increasing signs of transmission outside China show that the window of opportunity we have for containing this virus is narrowing," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO.

The outbreak of the new coronavirus began in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China in December 2019. As of February 24, 2020, more than 79,000 cases have been confirmed in 29 different countries and territories, ranging from Australia to North America. Of these cases, 2,626 were fatal. A notable spike in cases in mid-February reportedly resulted from new diagnostic criteria being utilized in Hubei, one of China's hardest hit provinces. The change was intended to speed up the process of identifying those infected so they could be treated sooner. 

On February 2, the WHO confirmed that the coronavirus claimed the life of a patient in the Philippines—the first death to occur outside of mainland China. Just three days earlier, the organization declared the virus a global health emergency. 

In the United States, confirmed cases are also on the rise. As of February 24, 53 Americans from at least six different states—Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin—were diagnosed with the coronavirus, health officials reported. Of these cases, 36 were infected aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship and flown to U.S. military bases after two weeks under quarantine and three others were infected in Wuhan. Only 14 cases among Americans were detected and tested in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.

Initially, all Americans diagnosed with COVID-19 have recently travelled to China, but the first person-to-person spread in the United States was confirmed on January 30 when the spouse of a woman from Illinois—who was diagnosed after returning from a trip to China—was also infected. As of February 18, more than 300 American cruise liner passengers, including 14 who tested positive for COVID-19, were flown to U.S. military bases after two weeks under quarantine off Japan, according to the CDC.

Efforts to contain the virus
In an attempt to control the rapidly spreading coronavirus, a 1,000-bed makeshift hospital was built in Wuhan in just 10 days, China’s National Health Commission reported.

Chinese officials also suspended all travel around Wuhan and other parts of China. On February 2, the U.S. State Department issued its strongest “Level 4” alert, advising against any travel to China due to the outbreak. The CDC also urges Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to the country.

Initially, the CDC began screening passengers at San Francisco (SFO), New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (LAX) airports but later expanded screenings to 15 additional airports. As of February 10, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would funnel all flights from China to 11 airports where health screenings are being conducted. If needed, potentially affected Americans may be quarantined.

Meanwhile, people across the globe are stockpiling surgical masks in an attempt to protect themselves from COVID-19. The buying frenzy has reportedly led to shortages of these face masks from China to North America.

Warning signs of infection
Those infected with COVID-19 have developed a range of symptoms associated with a respiratory infection, including:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing

More severe coronavirus infections can also lead to pneumonia, kidney failure or even death.

The emergence of COVID-19 is a stark reminder of previous deadly coronavirus outbreaks, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). That illness, which is caused by SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV), was first reported in Asia in February 2003. SARS spread to more than 29 countries before it was contained. There have been no confirmed cases of that particular coronavirus since 2004.

More recently, health officials scrambled to contain an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), which originated in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. Roughly three or four out of every 10 MERS cases has been fatal, according to the CDC. The agency points out, however, that only two cases ever reached the U.S., and both were associated with travel to the Arabian Peninsula.

Do you need to be worried?
COVID-19 is a new virus and this latest outbreak is fueling renewed fears about a mysterious and serious illness. It’s important to understand, however, that there are many coronaviruses. Most trigger mild to moderate illness and most people will be infected with one of them at some point in their lives. Only rarely do coronaviruses lead to serious illnesses, such as COVID-19, MERS and SARS.

The CDC has called COVID-19 a “very serious public health threat” but notes that the situation, which has largely been confined to other parts of the world, is still evolving. How severely the outbreak will affect the U.S. is not clear.

Federal health officials expect more cases to be confirmed and more person-to-person spread to occur in the U.S. and around the world. The CDC is tracking the new coronavirus closely and coordinating its response to the outbreak with the WHO as well as state and local health officials.

What is a coronavirus anyway?
Coronaviruses are actually a common type of virus that cause respiratory symptoms—much like a cold—that range from mild to severe. These viruses usually circulate among animals, particularly camels as well as cats or bats. On rare occasions, animal coronaviruses can mutate and spread to people. There are several coronaviruses currently circulating among animals that have not yet infected humans.

Many of those people initially affected by the outbreak in Wuhan, China had a link to a large seafood and animal market. Since then, other confirmed cases were not associated with this market, suggesting the latest coronavirus outbreak involved person-to-person spread as well.

How do coronaviruses spread?
Like the flu and some other respiratory viruses, coronaviruses typically spread among people through close personal contact, such as shaking hands or touching. It can also spread through the air when someone coughs or sneezes. Likewise, if you touch a contaminated surface then touch your mouth, nose or eyes, you can become infected.

Lab tests on blood or other bodily secretions are used to detect coronaviruses among those with suspected severe coronavirus infections, such as SARS, MERS or COVID-19.

Is there a treatment?
There are no specific drugs or treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses. In most cases, people with mild or moderate infections recover on their own. Supportive care, such as over-the-counter pain relievers, getting plenty of rest and drinking fluids, can help.

How to protect yourself
Unlike the seasonal flu, measles or other vaccine-preventable diseases, there are no immunizations that help protect against coronaviruses. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of infection, including:

  • Washing your hands well and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Not touching any part of your face, including your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoiding people with suspected or confirmed infections

Anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to COVID-19 or is concerned about flu-like symptoms, such as fever, coughing or trouble breathing, should see their healthcare provider. It’s particularly important to seek medical attention right away if you’ve also travelled to Wuhan City, China within the past two weeks or had close contact with someone with a confirmed or suspected infection.

Updated in February 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), Wuhan, China.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “First Travel-related Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Detected in United States”
World Health Organization. “Coronavirus.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus: Transmission.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2019 Novel Coronavirus, Wuhan, China.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2019 Novel Coronavirus, Wuhan, China: Situation Summary.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus: Prevention and Treatment.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2019 Novel Coronavirus, Wuhan, China: Interim Guidance for Healthcare Professionals.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “MERS in the U.S.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Revised U.S. Surveillance Case Definition for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Update on SARS Cases --- United States and Worldwide, December 2003.”
World Health Organization. “Situation report – 13 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)”
National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China. “Commanding China's fight against novel coronavirus outbreak.”
U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "DHS Issues Supplemental Instructions For Inbound Flights With Individuals Who Have Been In China."

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