Feature Article: Wondering about Coronavirus?
Published on in Parents PACK
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Published on in Parents PACK
Editor’s Note: This article, and the associated PDF, is being updated as more information becomes available. The date at the bottom of this webpage, and on the PDF, will indicate the most recent edits.
In recent weeks, the news has been dominated with stories about coronavirus. The virus, now called COVID-19, first sickened people in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Since then, many thousands of people around the globe have fallen ill, and some have died.
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that contain RNA (instead of DNA, like people have). The viruses are circular in shape with spikes on the surface, which appear like a halo when the virus is viewed with a microscope. This halo of spikes is what led scientists to name these “coronaviruses.”
Coronaviruses were first discovered in the 1930s, and as with other families of viruses, some coronaviruses are more worrisome than others. The earliest discovered coronaviruses infected farm animals, causing lung infections in chickens and digestive illness in pigs. Later, scientists found a couple of types that infected people, causing symptoms of the common cold.
This family of viruses garnered more attention in the early 2000s with the epidemic known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The SARS virus infected civet cats and then gained the ability to infect people, leading to the epidemic. In 2012, a similar occurrence led to the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, epidemic. In this situation a coronavirus that infected camels gained the ability to infect people. Currently, scientists think that COVID-19 also originated in an animal and then infected people, but, right now, it remains uncertain as to which animal.
When a virus that normally infects animals gains the ability to infect people, two things can happen:
The second of these scenarios is what is currently occurring with COVID-19.
When a new virus emerges, scientists and public health officials have a long “to do” list that includes:
We have watched this scenario of “people versus novel virus” play out many times in history, such as during the 1918 influenza pandemic, during the 1980s with the AIDS epidemic, and more recently, related to SARS (2003), H1N1 influenza (2009) and MERS (2012). The good news is that public health officials and scientists who work with infectious diseases have learned from each of these events. The bad news is that new viruses are unknown and, therefore, less predictable.
In situations such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is important not to “FORGET” these points:
F – Follow advice of officials — Officials are continuing to monitor the spread of COVID-19, and as necessary, they are adjusting recommendations and protective health practices. The best approach is to listen to this advice since they have the latest information available. Check the latest CDC guidance.
O – Observe the big picture — While tens or hundreds of thousands of cases of COVID-19 have occurred, only a few thousand people have died. While this sounds scary, let’s consider the big picture. Public health officials have estimated that about 1% of those infected have died.
To put this in context in the U.S., between the beginning of December 2019 and the end of January 2020, more than 28,000 people have died from influenza and pneumonia. This represents almost 7% of the total deaths that occurred in the U.S. during this two-month period. So, the big picture in the current situation is that you, or a family member, is significantly more likely to be exposed to, get sick with, and, possibly, die from influenza than from coronavirus.
R – Remain calm — It is completely understandable for people to be upset and worry about coronavirus, especially when hearing about it regularly, but it is important to manage emotions. This is especially true for parents of children old enough to understand the news. If you are upset, your children are likely to sense that and be upset too. Situations like this offer “teachable moments” in which we can discuss the situation with our children in an age-appropriate way, reassure them that adults are monitoring the situation to keep them safe, and remind them about the importance of good preventive measures, such as handwashing, covering coughs, and getting vaccinated when vaccines are available.
G – Get reliable information — Misinformation, and even scams, are rampant. So much so, in fact, that the World Health Organization (WHO) had to post a scam alert on their website. Don’t just retweet or repost if you are not sure of the source. Don’t rely solely on social media or online news feeds to get information. Go to reliable sources, like the WHO or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to get answers to your questions. Both have special website sections they are keeping updated with information.
E – Expect information to change — Public health officials, scientists and healthcare providers are learning as they go, so new information should be expected, not viewed as poor communication. Certainly, there may be specific situations or reports that, in retrospect, people will feel could have been handled better, but understand that these experts are all doing the best they can under the circumstances.
T – Take preventive health measures — Even though COVID-19 has not become widespread in the U.S. at this point, it could. And we are in the midst of cold and flu season, so preventive health measures, like handwashing, covering coughs, and staying home when ill are all good practices to follow, and to reinforce with children.
Download a printable version of this article in PDF format.
Last updated: March 12, 2020
Categories: Parents PACK March 2020, Feature Article
Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.
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