In a 21st century world business days might begin in Beijing and end in any number of American or international cities. But a previously unknown virus---the coronavirus---has upended travel from China and around the world.
The virus, now known as coronavirus, first struck in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million, in early December. But Chinese authorities were slow to react and ordered a blockade on disseminating information. This great wall of silence created a situation where doctors were forced to play catch-up.
Between December 8th and 18th, eight cases were identified in Wuhan. And then it exploded. Victims now total more than 17,000, deaths stand at nearly 400. Wuhan is now virtually closed. Air, train and bus travel to and from Wuhan has been suspended indefinitely. Supplies of surgical masks, a staple in China even under normal circumstances, are almost exhausted. Streets are also eerily empty with only a few people wandering out. Businesses and schools have closed down until further notice. But progress on the virus, albeit slow, is moving ahead.
“The genetic coding of the virus was finally identified at the end of December,” Dr. Gaby Frank, Medical Director for the Biocontainment Unit at Denver Health. “On December 31st, they identified that it was the coronavirus.” By comparing this strain to other viruses, SARS and MERS, researchers were able to attach a name to it.
It’s part of a family of viruses that can affect birds and mammals including humans. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath and is similar to symptoms of flu or pneumonia. Once exposed, a victim may feel its effects as quickly as 48 hours or as long as two weeks.
Coronavirus is dangerous, said Frank, “because it causes pneumonia and people die from pneumonia.” Only a fraction of those affected by coronavirus have died. “Most people will get better, some people won’t.
The exponential explosion of coronavirus has rocked the world. Trade, travel and immigration have all turned upside down. The Chinese stock market has plunged. Apple and Levis have curtailed manufacturing in China. Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, United Kingdom, Viet Nam and Thailand have followed the U.S. and enacted travel bans to and from China. American, Delta and United Airlines have suspended flights to and from China.
This outbreak has intersected with influenza, a disease that annually affects 45 million worldwide. It’s also fatal for 36,000 Americans each year. “Is it more dangerous than the flu? Hard to say,” said Dr. Carrie Horn, Chief Medical Officer at Denver’s National Jewish Hospital. “The problem is we don’t know how bad it will get if it stays on the same trajectory.” To date, the virus has spread to 23 countries and the World Health Organization has declared it a global emergency.
Despite what President Trump declared in his Super Bowl interview, that “we did shut it down,” hospitals across the U.S. are monitoring for coronavirus. Eleven cases in the U.S. have been confirmed but that number is expected to rise. The U.S. has also banned entry into the country by individuals who have traveled from China in the last two weeks. China has called the American response one based on fear and patently irresponsible, but Trump defended the decision. “We can’t have thousands of people coming in who may have this problem.”
The government has also announced an expansion for screening travelers entering the country. Initially, only five U.S. airports were asked to screen passengers for the coronavirus. But that list has expanded to twenty. To date, Denver International Airport is not on the list.
While this virus is understandably concerning, health officials are at least armed with the basic knowledge of fighting it despite not having developed a coronavirus vaccine. “Viruses mutate,” said National Jewish’s Horn. “The most responsible thing to do; wash your hands (regularly), try to avoid public places and cover your sneezes.” The last two similar viral outbreaks that caused this kind of alarm were the SARS and MERS viruses. SARS also began in China in 2002 and MERS originated in the Middle East in 2012.
Still, a person who has the virus but does not yet show symptoms may still be able to unknowingly spread it. “There is concern that maybe people may become contagious a couple of days before they’re symptomatic,” said Frank. “We’re still learning about this.”
A bizarre and dangerous form of misinformation that has surfaced as the coronavirus grew, crossed oceans and borders is a home remedy proffered by a fringe conspiracy group that has gained currency on the far right. QAnon, a pro-Trump group that dabbles in political and lifestyle conspiracies, has been telling its followers that drinking bleach can kill the virus. It is a theory without basis, said Frank and could create a whole new health problem. “Please do not drink bleach under any circumstances,” said Frank. “It can perforate your esophagus. Whatever you do, do not drink bleach.”
The Colorado Department of Health reports that the state’s flu season has not been abnormally different from past years. It says that influenza has caused the hospitalization of 1,348 patients as of February 2nd. There has also been one death.