The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 — or COVID-19, for short — has sparked alarm and uncertainty since the first infections were recorded in Wuhan, China, in December. Since then, COVID-19 has spread across the globe, and the World Health Organization is now reporting more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and nearly 4,300 deaths.
The first two cases were reported in Michigan on March 10. The following day, the World Health Organization labeled the outbreak a pandemic, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference in which she recommended that gatherings of more than 100 people be canceled or postponed. Locally, a number of universities are moving to online learning and events like the Corktown St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Marche du Nain Rouge, and country music star Blake Shelton’s Little Caesars Arena show have been canceled. Nationally, everything from the NBA season to Broadway shows have been put on pause.
As the impact of the respiratory illness continues to spread, so has misinformation. We talked to Dr. Marcus Zervos, division head of infectious diseases at Henry Ford Health System in metro Detroit, to address some of the rumors about COVID-19 and learn how we in the U.S. and Michigan can stay healthy now that the virus is spreading here.
How worried should U.S. residents be about the spread of COVID-19?
The situation is rapidly evolving, but the public health community’s concern about the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. has increased since the first cases were recorded here. “A heightened level of preparation is needed,” Zervos says. “The general consensus, at least among infectious disease experts, is that we need to prepare for the worst possibility.” That means strengthening surveillance, boosting availability of testing and personal protective equipment, and increasing hospital supplies for treating patients.
How can people stay healthy?
Like the flu, COVID-19 is spread via droplets. That means a poorly covered cough or sneeze can infect people nearby, and you can also contract the disease if you touch your face with contaminated hands. Because of that, “hand hygiene is always the most important measure,” Zervos says. In addition to washing your hands frequently with soap and water, you should cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, avoid being too close to sick people, and stay home when you are ill.
What should you do if you think you have COVID-19?
COVID-19’s symptoms can include a cough, fever, and shortness of breath. If your symptoms aren’t severe — which would warrant a trip to the ER — you should call your physician to assess the situation. Then, if further evaluation and care are needed, local hospitals are prepared to coordinate with the health department to address potential cases of the disease.
What kind of misinformation has spread about COVID-19?
Rumors about the source, prevention, treatment, and spread of COVID-19 have abounded (yes, it is safe to receive mail from China, and no, there is no evidence that eating garlic will ward off infection). Some of these rumors can have serious consequences; Zervos cites discrimination against certain ethnic groups — e.g., the assumption that Asian people, regardless of their exposure or travel history, are infected — as particularly harmful. To separate fact from fiction, Zervos recommends visiting the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for reliable, up-to-date information.
What can we learn from the COVID-19 outbreak?
Preparedness is key, Zervos says, noting the lack of personal protective equipment in China, where the outbreak started, and “less well-developed health systems” in low- and middle-income countries that aren’t as equipped for an outbreak as higher-income countries.
“If there’s any lesson to be learned, it’s that we need to build up the capacity of health systems of our neighbors to be able to handle these infections so that the infections can be controlled at an earlier time,” he says. “Because if it’s not one thing, it’s going to be another.”