By the bioMérieux Connection Editors
As COVID-19 continues to spread, misinformation has often been more contagious than the virus itself, and a lack of concrete information in some areas has compounded the problem. While infectious disease physicians, epidemiologists, and other healthcare providers have extensive experience responding to disease epidemics and deep knowledge of best practices, the rest of us likely do not. Because of that, it’s helpful to have resources that provide concrete, actionable information we can use to educate and protect ourselves effectively.
What We Know for Certain About COVID-19
Where COVID-19 Originated
This coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, which causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), first emerged from live animal markets in Wuhan, China, where it spread from animals to people. That follows the same pattern of other coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS, which also spread from animals to people. All three of those coronavirus strains have their origins in bat populations. After the initial spread from animals to people, the virus began to be transmitted from person to person.
How COVID-19 Spreads
This coronavirus spreads from one person to another who are in close contact (within 6 feet) though respiratory droplets that are expelled when coughing or sneezing. While it may be possible to get the virus through contact with contaminated surfaces, the medical consensus is that it is not the way the virus usually spreads. In general, people are the most contagious when they are sickest and most symptomatic. There have been some reports of the virus spreading before people show symptoms, which is why some people without symptoms are quarantined. Yet so far, that type of spread has not been typical in the early information we have on COVID-19.
Testing for COVID-19
With the number of infections climbing around the world, there is a need for fast, accurate testing to diagnose patients. Countries differ in their regulatory frameworks, and in the United States, all tests must undergo regulatory approval by the FDA before being used to test patients for coronavirus. The FDA has implemented measures to try to speed the process and meet the public need. Reports indicate that the United States is in the process of bringing more labs online, including US public health labs, and many hospitals have been developing their own in-house testing capabilities. Diagnostic companies have also been working hard to make tests commercially available, which would expand testing capacity further.
COVID-19 Infection Severity
The overall severity of COVID-19 is not clear at this time due to the fact that most of the people being tested are the sickest patients. Typical coronavirus infections involve relatively mild respiratory symptoms. However, some people are more at risk for having a severe case of the disease. Those include people with existing health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, as well as older adults. In these patients the risk of severe disease or death is much higher.
Availability of Coronavirus Treatment and Vaccine
There is currently no known treatment or vaccine for this coronavirus, although there are efforts to develop both. In the meantime, doctors provide supportive care to people with severe cases, while the body’s immune system works to fight off the virus.
What We are Still Trying to Understand About COVID-19
Total Number of Cases and Mortality Rate
Because of a combination of reporting issues and the fact that COVID-19 often has mild symptoms, it has been difficult to ascertain exactly how many people have the disease. Additionally, limited testing availability in the United States means that it is difficult to confirm cases in a timely manner. All of this contributes to uncertainty around the actual number of cases, as well as the mortality rate.
The mortality rate depends on the number of people who contract the disease. For example, if more people have the disease than are diagnosed, then the actual mortality rate could be lower than the reported rate, which is based on the number of laboratory-confirmed cases. (Number of deaths divided by the number of cases equals the mortality rate.) As of March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported 118,322 laboratory-confirmed cases and 4,292 deaths. It is likely that the mortality rate is highly variable in different regions based on the number of patients tested, the health care quality and available resources as well the percent of high-risk people being infected.
Responding Rationally to COVID-19
Given this information, what is the best way for individuals to respond to this virus? There are many factors that are not in most people’s control, such as the speed at which tests will become available. However, it’s important to keep a clear head and respond in ways that make sense and contribute to the fight against the virus.
Who is Most at Risk of Infection?
Elderly and people with existing health conditions like heart disease or diabetes are at the greatest risk for infection and for having severe symptoms. Of those who have died from the disease, most have been older individuals and/or who have had existing health conditions.
Diagnosis and Treatment for COVID-19
COVID-19 is diagnosed using a testing process called PCR—short for Polymerase Chain Reaction—and it is designed to find out if SARS-CoV-2 RNA is present. This test is performed in laboratories using samples taken from ill patients. If a patient tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, then they and those in direct contact with them must adhere to quarantine measures. There is no direct treatment for the viral infection. Instead, treatment for severe cases is limited to supportive measures while the body’s immune system works to fight off the infection.
How to Protect Yourself and Your Family: Dos and Don’ts
DO follow standard infection prevention steps—wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, avoid touching your face, disinfect surfaces like tables and door handles, avoid contact with those who are ill.
DO adhere to your doctor’s instructions and follow any necessary quarantine procedures if you or someone you live with becomes ill.
DON’T hoard medical supplies like masks, because doctors need them to treat patients.
DON’T gargle with bleach or try other non-standard remedies, because you may harm yourself severely.
DON’T share information from unverified sources.
DO share information from verified sources, such as the WHO.
DO follow travel warnings and advisories.
What to Do if You Experience COVID-19 Symptoms
Common symptoms of infection include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. If you get sick, seek medical attention as quickly as possible. Follow your doctor’s instructions for testing and treatment, as well as any directions regarding quarantine.
Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of bioMérieux, Inc.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, diagnosis, or treatment.