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Medical experts on coronavirus: What is it and how to protect yourself

Health Commissioner Lawrence Eisenstein and other Nassau County health department officials speaking Tuesday about steps the county is taking to help combat the coronavirus. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has sickened more than 80,000 people across the globe and caused more than 2,600 deaths since it surfaced in Wuhan, China, according to the World Health Organization. Across the United States, there are 59 confirmed cases, though the majority of those were passengers on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship, according federal health officials.

There are no confirmed cases in New York State, but officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged everyone to take precautions and prepare for an inevitable outbreak in the United States.

Newsday asked local medical experts to answer commonly asked questions about the virus.

What is coronavirus and how does it compare to the flu?

Human coronaviruses, once just the cause of the common cold, changed with the emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012 as world epidemics, according to Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chair of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital.

Glatt said these two more serious coronaviruses “jumped species from being animal pathogens to becoming capable of causing human illness," and "mortality rates can be high.” He noted that influenza comes from a different family than coronaviruses and also causes contagious respiratory illness.

The CDC estimates that this season there have been at least 29 million flu illnesses, 280,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths from the flu. The agency said 105 influenza-associated deaths in children have been reported so far.

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Glatt said that it's "probably only a matter of time" before COVID-19 causes deaths in the United States, but "that number will hopefully be only a small fraction" compared to the flu's toll.

How does coronavirus spread? What's the level of risk faced by the U.S. population?

The virus spreads through air droplets, and it can survive on surfaces, according to Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health.  

“This really speaks to the need to try to control one’s cough when in close proximity to someone else,” he said. “The fact that it can survive on some surfaces speaks to the importance of hand-washing.”

The CDC recommends that people clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

While the CDC said the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high in the United States and around the globe, the immediate health risk to the general American public is considered low because most people are unlikely to be exposed at this time.

Who is vulnerable? How can people prevent exposure to coronavirus?

“Risks of contracting the virus is based on epidemiologic exposure — and therefore exposure to persons infected with the Wuhan Coronavirus, and those ill with respiratory symptoms who have traveled to Wuhan or neighboring cities,” said Normadeane Armstrong, a professor of global health and epidemiology at Molloy College.

“Right now, the best prevention is good hand-washing,” Armstrong said. “It is still too soon to project what other populations may be at risk, but the best methods of protection right now is basic infection control."

The CDC advises people to wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

Are surgical masks effective in protecting people against coronavirus?

The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear face masks for this virus.

“That’s really not protecting you that much,” said Dr. Brian Harper, chief medical officer of the Academic Health Centers at New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury. “You’re still breathing air that gets around that surgical mask.”

Harper said that a fitted mask with a respirator, similar to ones worn by health professionals, would provide more protection. The masks could help reduce the spread of the virus when worn by someone who has a confirmed case.

What treatment is available once someone contracts the virus?

“Unfortunately, at the present time, there is no vaccine and there are no antiviral medications proven effective,” Glatt said.

The CDC notes on its website that people with COVID-19 “should receive supportive care to help relieve symptoms. For severe cases, treatment should include care to support vital organ functions.”

The CDC maintains a list of frequently-asked questions and answers on its website.

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