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Coronavirus Q&A: As fears hit WNY, how worried should you be?

New information about the spread of the coronavirus epidemic is exploding daily as health leaders around the world struggle to contain and treat the China-born illness.

Just Tuesday morning, state officials confirmed that two families from Buffalo who recently traveled from Italy are in isolation in their homes as they are being tested for possible infection by the virus.

Erie County Health Department officials have pledged to immediately disclose should anyone test positive for infection by the new coronavirus. But Health Commissioner Gale Burstein and her representatives have consistently refused to state how many people in Erie County have been isolated or quarantined, citing privacy concerns.

A county Health Department spokeswoman confirmed it is testing individuals in Erie County and following state and federal guidelines.

This ongoing crisis is prompting many questions.

So here are some answers. The responses to the questions below were collected from information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the New York State Health Department, local health departments and government leaders.

Q: Now that two cases been confirmed in New York State, when will it reach this region?

A: It may already be here. But if no local cases test positive, the Erie County Department of Health has no guesstimate on when the new coronavirus might arrive. Based on the latest updates from the CDC, however, local health officials expect the virus will eventually show up.

Bear in mind that prior to Sunday, New York had no confirmed cases at all. Now it has two. The CDC does not expect the United States to succeed in containing the virus because of the rate at which it is spreading. The virus has already found its way into roughly a dozen states.

For that reason, local health departments have been in communication with school districts, other government agencies, health care organizations and businesses to begin planning for emergency response measures should an outbreak occur here.

[Related: Potential Erie County coronavirus samples being tested in Albany]

Q: How worried should I be about getting infected?

A: Here's some comparative, contextual data to help answer that question.

No cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed in upstate New York. Two cases have been confirmed downstate. More than 100 cases have been confirmed nationwide, nearly half from a single cruise ship. So far, nine people have died, all in Washington State. Four were linked to a single nursing home.

Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, many of the same symptoms associated with the flu. The mortality rate for the new coronavirus is difficult to determine, but rough estimates are falling below 3%. Symptoms for many are mild, but are severe in some cases. Most people who contract the illness recover, but as more people contract the illness, more are expected to die.

The death toll currently stands at about 3,000, with most of those deaths occurring in China.

Let's compare that to the flu, which has symptoms frequently compared to the coronavirus.

According to the state Health Department estimates, influenza has sickened more than 5,000 residents in the Erie-Niagara region this season alone. The governor recently announced that the state has had a record-breaking number of lab-confirmed flu cases this season – more than 130,000.

Even though the flu season is past its peak, more than 10,000 New York State residents are estimated to have contracted the flu just last week.

While the mortality rate for the flu in the United States is estimated at a small fraction of 1%, it still kills. Nine children in New York State alone, including one child locally, have died of the illness.

But we know much more about the influenza virus than the new coronavirus. The fact that there is no vaccine against the new virus, that it is rapidly spreading and that it has killed thousands has prompted justifiable alarm. This virus appears to spread easily and cause sustained community infection. It's natural for local residents to fear its eventual arrival.

This is not the first time the United States has grappled with a new virus. Outbreaks like H1N1, the bird flu or ebola have been sources of tremendous concern in the past.

Social media "facts" about the dangers and spread of the virus in the United States that are not based on information and research provided by the CDC, local and state health departments and government leaders, or health care providers should be viewed with skepticism.

Q: What exactly is the coronavirus, and why am I hearing related terms like "novel" coronavirus or COVID-19?

A: These are all related terms but not exactly the same thing.

While "coronavirus" may be a new term for many of us, it refers to a large group of viruses responsible for everything from the common cold to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak from the early 2000s. This type of virus got its name from for the crownlike spikes that cover the surface of the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this illustration of the coronavirus.

The specific type of coronavirus that is currently a worldwide threat is the "novel" or "new" coronavirus, or more specifically "SARS-CoV-2." The illness it causes is called COVID-19, short for "coronavirus disease 2019."

Q: Who is at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19 in the United States?

A: Those who have recently traveled to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy are at greatest risk for contracting the illness. The CDC has issued travel restrictions and advisories for those countries.

Should a more widespread outbreak occur in the United States, seniors and those with compromised immune systems or other chronic health conditions are at greater risk. Such high-risk populations are being discouraged from traveling to Japan, which has also seen some sustained transmission of the virus.

According to Kaleida Health, front-line hospital workers use the following rubric to determine whether someone is likely to have been exposed to the virus:

  • If a person has a fever and symptoms of a respiratory illness and has been to one of the countries where a travel advisory has been issued within 14 days of the onset of symptoms.
  • Anyone who reports any one symptom associated with the virus who has been in close contact with a lab-confirmed COVID-19 individual.
  • Anyone who has a fever and shows severe acute lower respiratory illness, such as pneumonia, for which no other explanatory diagnosis, such as the flu, can be found.

Q: How long will this new virus be with us?

A: Scientists can only speculate. In a best-case scenario, the virus might be seasonal in nature and peter out as the weather gets warmer in afflicted areas, giving more time for researchers to develop an effective vaccine. In a worst-case scenario, this new virus may never be fully eradicated and will get added to the list of virus types that circulate around the world for many years to come.

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Q: If there is no vaccine on the horizon for a year, can I protect myself against the virus if it shows up here?

A: Yes.

Health care organizations, schools, event planners and businesses need to work with health officials to develop large-scale emergency plans to protect against the new virus. But individuals have the ability to take their own protective measures.

The same common-sense, good hygiene protocols that would protect you from the cold or flu or any other virus are the same healthy habits that would protect you against the new coronavirus.

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. The CDC recommends washing for 20 seconds each time with soap and water and has a web page devoted to this topic. Hand sanitizer with a high alcohol content is a good alternative if you can't get to a sink.
  • Don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth. For disease-causing germs to infect you, they require contact with living cells – such as in the mucus membranes that are exposed when you rub your eyes or pick your nose.
  • Stay away from people who are sick or appear sick, avoid touching things frequently touched by other people, and clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that are frequently touched.

And of course, be a good citizen. If you sneeze or cough, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or your sleeve. And if you are sick, stay home and avoid contact with others.

Q: Would it help to have a face mask?

A: Generally, no.

Most of us have seen images of health care providers and ordinary Chinese residents walking around with face masks, or protesting the shortage of face masks.

Unless you are a health care provider or show symptoms of COVID-19, the CDC does not recommend donning a face mask in public settings to protect against this coronavirus since the virus is primarily spread through close contact.

Moreover, not all face masks offer the same protection. The ultraprotective N95 face mask or "respirator," which effectively filters out bacteria and viruses, is in high demand, and health care providers and personnel need it the most.

More WNYers could be quarantined as coronavirus cases multiply

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