Hey Alice!

I've been hearing a lot on the news about the new virus from China and I'm seeing students on campus wearing masks. The news seems to have conflicting information and I'm not sure what to do. Should I be worried? Do I need to wear a mask too? Thank you.

Dear Reader,

For those looking for a little background, the virus from China, known as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) originated in Wuhan, China. It’s primarily transmitted from animal-to-person contact, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s not currently a threat in the US. If you’re concerned that you, or anyone you know, might be displaying symptoms associated with the virus (more on those in a bit), speaking with a health care provider is recommended. To your question about masks — it’s not clear how effective the masks are at preventing the spread of the virus. The current recommendation is that they're not necessary for those not experiencing symptoms, and the CDC isn't recommending them as a method to stop the spread of COVID-19. But, if you do opt for one, there are some tips to keep in mind.

To cover some of the basics, coronaviruses typically resemble colds or the flu. The virus may cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract infections and even severe forms of pneumonia in some cases. This particular strain of virus was first found in a seafood and live-animal market in Wuhan, China in late-December 2019, indicating an animal-to-person transmission (a typical characteristic of coronaviruses). Over time, there were confirmed cases among patients not exposed to the animal markets, which alerted medical professionals that the virus could be spread from person-to-person. Though the mode of transmission of COVID-19 has yet to be confirmed, other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, have most frequently spread through respiratory droplets from those who were infected. Those who were diagnosed with COVID-19 through person-to-person transmission were in direct contact with someone who had previously been traveling and was diagnosed.

Health authorities across the globe, including the CDC and World Health Organization are working around the clock to keep tabs on the progression of COVID-19. For now, the CDC indicates the virus has a low threat to the US, even with confirmed cases of person-to-person transmission. Chances are, unless you’ve recently traveled from China, you haven’t come in contact with the coronavirus. It’s also worth noting that the emergence of this virus coincides with cold and flu season, so it’s more likely that you’ve come in contact with someone who has the common cold or the flu.

That being said, here are some symptoms to look out for:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Cough

In order to limit your contact with coronavirus, there are some preventative measures that might help reduce the odds. These measures also help to reduce the spread of colds and the flu:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Clean or disinfect commonly used objects regularly
  • Stay home when you’re sick
  • Avoid others who are or may be sick

List adapted from the CDC.

You mentioned that you’ve seen students wearing masks around campus. Many folks choose to use these masks as a preventive measure. However, the research on a mask’s ability to prevent infectious disease is mixed and hasn't shown that it’s particularly beneficial. For example, in a study at the University of Michigan, they found that wearing masks and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers could help reduce the spread of influenza by 50 percent. On the other hand, masks are intended to keep out larger liquid droplets, so it wouldn't be as effective at filtering out fine particles that may contain the virus. If you do choose to wear a mask, it’s good to wear them consistently and correctly (keeping the mouth and nose covered), knowing that it’s mostly there to help with face touching and keeping large droplets of bodily fluid away. At this time there’s no formal recommendation to use them, so do what feels right to you!

If you want to keep on top of what’s happening with the outbreak, consider checking the CDC website for updates.

It's great that you're seeking out answers, particularly when you're seeing conflicting information. Hope this helps!


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