Global experts addressing the spread of potentially deadly viruses and other infections were supposed to gather in Boston this week for the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections.
That changed after reports began to spread that dozens of people had been exposed to COVID-19 during a leadership conference hosted by biotech company Biogen on Feb. 26 in the same city.
Conference organizers instead decided it was best to conduct their gathering virtually, connecting to each other, their workshops and keynote speeches from the relative safety of their home or office computers.
The decision – made several days before the World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the novel coronavirus as a global pandemic – foreshadowed what likely comes next for those in the Buffalo-Niagara region, and beyond.
To be sure, the situation is so fluid, the concern (never mind panic) so palpable, that reliable information that sheds more light than heat is paramount.
With that in mind, here’s what strikes me the most as of Friday morning:
This is a big deal: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Congressional committee this week that indications right now show the new virus to be 10 times more deadly than seasonal influenza, which has roughly a 0.1% fatality rate.
COVID-19 fatality rate estimates have fluctuated in recent weeks, as more nations ramp up to contain and prevent more cases of the virus, but Fauci pegged it right now at 1%.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20,000 to 52,000 Americans have died from complications of the flu this influenza season, while 350,000 to 620,00 have been hospitalized. If U.S. citizens and the health community use the same approach with the novel coronavirus, and it lasts as long, we arguably could be looking at 3.5 million to 6.2 million hospitalizations and 200,000 to 520,000 related deaths nationwide.
Things are likely to get worse: And less convenient, as already is clear with the suspension of the NHL season, and cancellation of the Buffalo St. Patrick’s Day parades and the NBA season. There has been a dearth of testing in the region, state and much of the U.S. as test manufacturers ramp up test kit supplies. Little more than a dozen people had been tested in Erie County by Thursday morning and the protocol for testing was exacting: Have you traveled to a COVID-19 hotspot in a country outside the U.S.? Do you have flu symptoms that include lower-respiratory chest congestion? Regional primary care doctors expect those parameters to expand as more tests become available, along with the growing prospect for positive test results. They say it’s most important at this juncture to test those who are most likely to test positive for the airborne virus, and quarantine those who do.
Take big breaths: Global and regional experts, including the U.S. Surgeon General, say that 80% of those who contract the virus will recover fully without the need for treatment. Those with compromised immune systems and pre-existing conditions including asthma, diabetes and heart disease – particularly those 60 and older – are at higher risk for hospitalization, according to the WHO. Those 80 and over with such conditions are at higher risk for death.
Think big picture: This virus won't last forever, and already appears to be slowing in China, where the first cases were reported on New Year's Eve. Individual rights reign in the U.S., but this really is the time where you likely will need to to become a small part of the greater goal to blunt the impact of the virus. Don’t become part of the problem. If government and health officials tell you to stay home, do so. If you and family members are quarantined or isolated, there are good reasons to follow the rules. Most important among them: You could unknowingly spread the virus to a vulnerable loved one – or a health provider who might be sidelined because you gave them the coronavirus or another respiratory condition.
Pay attention to science, not fiction: Social media is hardly the best place to chase information about COVID-19 treatments, cures and developments. Health providers can treat symptoms but at this point there is no evidence that any drug or herb can stop it in its tracks. There are several go-to websites that scientists and reporters can check globally, nationally and regionally to help get the most accurate, up-to-date information. You can see them, too. Among them:
Erie County Department of Health: Includes news updates, answers to frequently asked questions and guidelines about what you should do if you have flu-like symptoms (start by calling your primary health provider).
New York State Department of Health: A clearinghouse of information for health providers and the general public, with tips for COVID-19 preparedness, updated positive test results by county and a toll-free number to call with concerns: 1-888-364-3065.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Includes health and safety tips, and information on the virus nationally.
World Health Organization: Includes the latest information globally and busts the myths surrounding COVID-19.
Regional hospitals: Catholic Health, Erie County Medical Center, Kaleida Health, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and other regional hospitals have sections on their homepages that include updates for patients, visitors (including guidelines) and vendors, as well as related prevention and care topics.