Coronavirus Risk Is Low In W.Va. — Preparing For It Is Just Good Public Health
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
As coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, people are starting to wonder -- how at risk am I? Health reporter Kara Lofton spoke with Dr. Jennifer Horney, an epidemiologist at the University of Delaware, about what we know about coronavirus so far and what we might be able to expect.
Lofton: So how big of a deal is coronavirus? Who exactly is at risk for contracting this disease?
Horney: So what we're seeing is a global spread of a relatively novel virus, although it is related to other viruses that we've seen in the past like SARS. It seems that it's not very serious among people under about age 70. The mortality rates are very high in older adults, up to eight or nine people out of 100 infected, and we're seeing much lower rates in younger people.
Lofton: So I've seen a lot of comparisons to the flu, are they comparable in terms of risk to the average person?
Horney: I think that the comparison lies in the fact that we tend to be very bad at risk perception. So every year we tend to have around 30,000 deaths in the United States from seasonal flu. And we don't have vaccination rates that are that great. And so I think that the response, the comparison to the flu, has been that we have the flu every year, we have over 100 million cases. Usually, we have a number of people who are high risk, including children and the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. And we don't see the kind of attention played to the flu on a typical year that we're seeing to coronavirus.
Lofton: So I've seen the word pandemic kind of thrown around. And that sounds scary. Should people be scared?
Horney: I think that there are a couple of things that people should be concerned about. We definitely need to increase our testing capacity. We need all our state public health labs across the country to be able to rapidly and accurately test patients who are suspected to have been infected.
We need other countries around the world to have the resources to be able to accurately report. And we need appropriate science-based information from the media, from the government, from academic researchers. And I think all of those things will basically point us in the right direction.
I think what we don't need if we're just an average person not planning on traveling, we don't need masks or gloves. Save those for the healthcare workers, for people with compromised immune systems who may need them. And I think one of the more likely outcomes of people going and buying things like masks and gloves is that they're actually not trained to use them. They're not being able to have the mask fitted and so they’re probably wasting your money on something that's not going to be effective at preventing transmission of coronavirus in the very unlikely event that they should be exposed to someone who's infected.
Lofton: There's a lot to unpack there. But I want to talk about the last thing you said: the very unlikely possibility of being exposed to somebody. I mean, in a place like West Virginia that doesn't actually have an international airport, how at risk are people in West Virginia specifically?
Horney: I think the risk there is very low. The cases that we are seeing in the US have been associated with, again, with people with close contact with someone with a travel history. And we are starting to see cases without a travel history, but those are predominantly in large cities. So I really don't think that it's a great risk and as many people have been saying, the basic precautions like washing your hands and staying home when you're sick are the best to follow. At this point, seasonal influenza remains a much bigger threat in the US than coronavirus.
Lofton: Considering that, do local health departments and state health departments in places like West Virginia need to take specific actions to prepare for this in the event if it does spread more widely than places where there's lots of travel?
Horney: Public health, I think at the local state and federal level have been preparing for some time for coronavirus and the potential for it to spread in the US, and we have to remember that we've made a tremendous investment in our public health system since September 11, and the subsequent anthrax attacks. So we've had a lot of practice responding to avian influenza pandemic influenza, SARS, Ebola. So people are ready.
I know state health departments are having weekly or even daily calls with their partners in hospitals and other health facilities that would need to be aware of something we're going to happen. But I think we're ready. It will just be a matter of having to ramp up the response once those cases do start to increase.
Lofton: You know, for people listening to this, is there a takeaway? I mean, it sounds like people really don't need to be that concerned and that it could be more hyped up then their actual risk.
Horney: Yes, I think there are a lot of things to be more concerned about right now. Certainly keep an eye on the news and use scientifically valid information -- sources like the Centers for Disease Control or your state health department. Look to them, they'll be publishing updated guidance. There's so much information available. I think it can be difficult to know what the most accurate and up to date information is. But use those sources of news that have experts that are providing the information and try to stay off of social media if you can.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.