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Coronavirus, questions and answers: What can you do to protect yourself?

Surgical masks aren't necessarily effective protection against coronavirus,

Surgical masks aren't necessarily effective protection against coronavirus, experts say, but people like this man, in London, have been wearing them as concerns over the outbreak spread throughout the globe. Credit: EPA / Andy Rain

China has struggled to contain the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, locking millions of people in their cities, as the virus continues to spread around the globe.

The World Health Organization, which named the virus COVID-19, has declared the outbreak a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" with 79,331 confirmed cases around the globe. There are 77,262 confirmed cases in China and over 2,500 deaths.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 35 confirmed cases in the United States. That number includes three people who took chartered flights from China and 18 people who were aboard the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship. There are no confirmed cases in New York State. 

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.”

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He noted that influenza comes from a different family than coronaviruses and also causes contagious respiratory illness.

“Over 8,000 people this flu season alone have already died from flu in the U.S., including 60 pediatric deaths, while not one person has passed in the same time period from any CoV," Glatt said.

He said it's "probably only a matter of time" before the virus, which has also been known as 2019nCoV, causes deaths in the United States, but "that number will undoubtedly 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.”

He noted the number of people infected with coronavirus in China was doubling every seven days, but that doesn’t apply to the United States

“At this moment, the risk of a widespread outbreak in the U.S. appears to be low,” he said. “We have had a bit of a head start putting infection control measures in place.”

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.

CDC officials have pointed out that almost all of the confirmed cases in the United States are people who traveled to Wuhan.

“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."

Are surgical masks effective in protecting people against coronavirus?

The CDC is not recommending wearing 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 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 against any CoV 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.”

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