A panel of public health experts from the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, Campus Health, Banner Health and the Pima County Health Department convened on Monday to provide information on the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak.
The respiratory illness originated in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province of China, late last year. Virologists first identified coronavirus as novel – meaning that it is new to everyone's immune system – on Jan. 11. By the end of January, the number of cases reached 7,700, and 170 people had died. In Arizona, only a single case was confirmed in Maricopa County. The World Health Organization declared the virus a global health emergency.
By Feb. 11, the number of global cases had surged to more than 43,000. Over 1,000 deaths have been reported, the vast majority in China. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 12 positive cases in the United States.
While Americans are currently at minimal risk of contracting the disease, there are measures they can take during this time, panelists said.
"Spread facts, not fear; practice compassion; and wash your hands," said panelist David Salafsky, interim co-executive director of University of Arizona Campus Health Service and its director of Health Promotion & Preventive Services.
The most effective precautions to prevent the contraction and spread of coronavirus and other diseases are often the simplest, panelists said.
"We've done a lot of studies about how viruses are transmissed in public arenas, and handwashing is at the top of the list in terms of prevention," said panelist Kelly Reynolds, University of Arizona professor and chair of the Department of Community, Environment and Policy and director of the Environmental, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center. Hand sanitizer works, too, she said.
She also encouraged people to avoid touching their faces, which we do mindlessly dozens of times per hour. A virus on your hands alone can't make you sick; it can, however, make you sick when it works its way into the body through the eyes, nose and mouth. She recommended sanitizing work and living surfaces weekly.
It's also thought that coronavirus can be spread through droplets propelled by coughing and sneezing. It might even be found and spread through solid human waste. People are most contagious when showing symptoms, experts believe, so, people should stay home if they're sick. Symptoms include fever and cough, but also shortness of breath, which distinguishes coronavirus from the flu.
Getting the flu vaccine – if you haven't already – is also a good idea, said panelist Katherine Ellingson, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. The vaccine protects people from flu symptoms that might be misidentified as coronavirus, which helps conserve resources that might otherwise be used to test and care for people who actually have the novel disease.
The panelists also advised against buying surgical or respirator face masks. Not only is a surge in mask sales limiting resources for health care professionals on the front lines, but masks can also give people a false sense of security, said panelist Francisco Garcia, director and chief medical officer of the Pima County Department of Health. If used improperly or as a sole tool against pathogens, masks are ineffective, he said.
Panelists also warned about the spread of false information.
"Go to reputable organizations, such as the CDC coronavirus page and local and state health department webpages," said panelist Brandie Anderson, infection prevention program director for Banner University Medical Center – Tucson and UArizona adjunct instructor of epidemiology and biostatistics. "Also. have an awareness about what you're absorbing from the media and verify it with secondary information."
In addition to health concerns, the panel also warned against harmful xenophobia.
"Thankfully, we know this originated in China," said panel discussion moderator Zhao Chen, University Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. "It is also being spread by individuals traveling from China, so we can't identify who is at high risk just from their look."