UNC Health Care

What You Need to Know About Coronavirus

You may be concerned about coronavirus, or more specifically the 2019 novel coronavirus that is making global headlines right now. David J. Weber, MD, MPH, medical director of infection prevention at UNC Hospitals, explains more about the virus, now called COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, in the video above. The text below is adapted from that conversation.


What is the new coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are viruses that generally attack the respiratory tract. They’re similar to influenza, and there are a number of different coronaviruses, some of which we have routinely here in the United States. But over the years we’ve seen novel, or new, coronaviruses, starting with SARS several decades ago, which started in Asia. Then we had MERS, which we still have, that started in the Middle East, and more recently, just at the end of December, a new coronavirus called 2019 novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China.

What symptoms does coronavirus cause?

It causes a flu-like illness. You really can’t distinguish it from influenza. For most patients, fever, cough and shortness of breath would be the initial symptoms. And it can progress to pneumonia or more severe respiratory disease.

Under what circumstances should a person go to the doctor or emergency department?

If you have those symptoms and you have been in China in the last two weeks, then stay home and first call your health care provider and talk to them about the symptoms. Also call your county health department. If you’re having severe illness, then you will need to be seen, but you should call ahead.

How is the virus spread?

These respiratory viruses—not only the novel coronavirus, but influenza and others—are spread most commonly by droplets, people coughing and sneezing generally within 6 feet. Also, it can spread through direct contact, like touching hands and then touching your nose without performing hand hygiene (washing your hands or using a 60 to 95 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer).

In China, more than 60,000 people have had the virus and more than 1,300 people have died. Is coronavirus usually life-threatening?

We know that COVID-19 can cause severe disease. If hospitalized, about 1 to 2 percent of infected persons will die. However, we need to keep in mind that as of Feb. 11, only 13 people in the U.S. have been reported with COVID-19, while in the U.S. there have been at least 22 million flu illnesses, 210,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths from flu.

What can patients do to protect themselves?

It’s not too late to get your flu shot. Flu is a much bigger risk, particularly in the United States, than this virus, so go get your flu shot. Second of all, if you’re sick and you have any respiratory virus, stay home and don’t infect the rest of your colleagues and friends.

Follow what we call respiratory etiquette, which means if you’re coughing and sneezing, take a tissue and cover your nose and your mouth. That dramatically decreases the spray of these infectious droplets and reduces other people’s risk.

Whenever you touch your face or you’re out in public, perform hand hygiene. Soap and water work perfectly well. If not, any of the FDA-approved alcohol antiseptics work perfectly well. The virus is not particularly stable, and it can be removed from the hands by good hand hygiene.

If you are sick and you have to go into a health care facility, ask to get a mask and put that on and try to sit at least 6 feet away from other people so you don’t transmit the virus.


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