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COVID-19 Q&A: What we know, don’t know, and how to prepare

A worker cleans his goggles to spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

“The immediate risk to the American public remains low.”

So Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday, while providing an update about the global spread of the novel coronavirus.

He then added: “The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly, and we can expect to see more cases in the United States.”

As the narrative of this new strain of coronavirus unfolds, it can be difficult to follow. But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Deputy Anne Schuchat and other officials are urging people to do their best.

“It’s a good time for the American public to prepare and know what this means for you,” Schuchat said this week.

Much remains to be discovered about novel coronavirus, but here’s a primer on what officials understand, recommend and are doing so far.

What is COVID-19?

In December, a new strain of coronavirus was detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. It has since spread to six continents and 37 countries. The virus has been named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes has been named novel coronavirus 2019 or COVID-19 for short. COVID-19 is a respiratory virus.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are similar to a common cold or influenza, such as fever, coughing or difficulty breathing. Symptoms can appear from two days to two weeks after exposure. Coronaviruses are common in many different species of animals, but sometimes can infect humans. While initial cases of COVID-19 were linked to animal markets in Wuhan City, the virus also is spreading from person to person.

Am I at risk for catching COVID-19?

The risk to the general American public remains low, according to federal and local health officials. But for certain travelers recently returned to the United States, the risks could be higher. Americans returning from China or who have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 could be at risk for getting the virus. Quarantine measures and travel restrictions set by the CDC and the State Department have been put in place and are constantly adjusted according to risk.

How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 is thought to spread much like other coronaviruses, from person to personthrough coughing or sneezing. Close contact, within 6 feet, also increases the risk of spreading COVID-19. Touching a surface infected with the virus and then touching one’s nose, eyes or mouth could spread the virus as well, although this is not thought to be the primary way COVID-19 spreads. Spread is possible before a person shows symptoms, making the virus difficult to track. How easily the virus spreads varies greatly from person to person.

How are local, state and federal health departments preparing for more cases?

At the federal level, HHS is working with Congress to secure funding to expand the country’s surveillance network. Funding will also help with therapeutic treatment, vaccine development and purchasing personal protective equipment.

Federal agencies, including the CDC and HHS, as well as the State Department, are dictating guidance for quarantines, testing and care for patients with COVID-19 in the United States.

The Washington State Department of Health is working with local jurisdictions statewide to prepare schools, health departments and workplaces in the event of community spread or a declared pandemic of COVID-19. DOH set up a quarantine station at their Shoreline public health lab and is working to open another one, if necessary, near Centralia. The state health department will test for COVID-19 starting this week as well.

Locally, the Spokane Regional Health District plays the lead role when it comes to containing or controlling the spread of a disease and ensuring the public’s health. The county’s health officer has broad authority to protect the community.

How can I stay healthy? Do I need to go buy masks?

To reduce the risk of spreading or becoming infected with COVID-19, people are encouraged to practice similar measures to preventing the common cold or the flu. Washing hands often with soap and hot water, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when you are sick are all important preventive measures.

The Washington Department of Health recommends creating an emergency action plan in the event of community spread, including plans for if school or workplaces are closed. Gathering extra supplies, like soap, tissues and alcohol-based hand sanitizer are encouraged. Wearing masks is not routinely recommended for people who are not sick, according to local and federal health guidance. Masks might be appropriate for a person with confirmed COVID-19 who is entering a crowded, community setting.

How many cases are in the United States, Washington and Spokane?

So far, there are 60 confirmed cases in the United States. The majority of these cases are repatriated passengers who contracted the virus aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had hundreds of confirmed cases. Washington state had the first case of COVID-19 confirmed in the United States on Jan. 21 but has not had another confirmed case since. In Spokane, there are four repatriated Diamond Princess passengers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 receiving treatment at the special pathogens unit at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Why are there four COVID-19 confirmed patients at Sacred Heart Medical Center?

Following the 2014 Ebola outbreak, hospitals around the country applied to be a part of a program intended to prepare for the possibility of Ebola or another virus spreading. In 10 regions nationwide, special pathogens units were created and built with federal funding. Sacred Heart has the special pathogens unit for the Pacific Northwest four-state region.

Last week, four Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers were transferred from Travis Air Force Base in California to Spokane at the direction of HHS and in coordination with DOH to help lessen the burden on the health care system in northern California. No more transfers to Sacred Heart are planned.

Is there a cure for COVID-19?

No. Development of an approved therapeutic drug treatment as well as a vaccine are underway in the United States and in other countries. The National Institutes of Health announced a clinical trial for remdesivir, an unapproved drug, at the University of Nebraska. The drug was used in the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Snohomish County, Washington, and that patient has recovered and is out of the hospital. People with confirmed COVID-19 can participate in the trial, and one patient, who was a cruise ship passenger, has already agreed to participate.

How fast can a vaccine be developed and if one is created, would people need it just once or annually, like the flu?

It will take researchers about a year to develop a vaccine, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday at a national news briefing.

The institute must coordinate several phases of trials that involve hundreds if not thousands of participants, and they selected Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute to begin the phase one part clinical testing for a vaccine. The trial is expected to take 13 months, Kaiser Permanente said in a statement. The phase one part of the trial does not study the effectiveness of the vaccine but instead looks at safety in dosing.

“If this virus will go beyond a season and come back and recycle next year, we hope to have a vaccine,” Fauci said.

Who is being quarantined and for how long?

U.S. citizens returning from China are being rerouted to 11 airports to receive a health screening. If they do not have symptoms, travelers are still asked to monitor their health for two weeks and limit their interactions with others, ideally staying at home, CDC quarantine guidelines say.

Foreign nationals who have traveled in China in the last two weeks are not allowed to come into the United States currently.

What travel restrictions are in place due to COVID-19 spreading?

The State Department has issued a Level 4 travel warning for China, asking Americans not to travel there. South Korea is at a Level 3 travel warning, and the CDC recommends people avoid all nonessential travel. Additionally, the State Department issued a Level 2 travel warning for Iran, Italy and Japan, all countries with widespread community transmission of COVID-19. Older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing their travel to these countries, CDC guidance shows.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.