9 reasons doctors say you should stay calm as coronavirus spreads

  • Dr. David Beezhold, medical director of infection control and prevention at Elmhurst Hospital, urges calm in regard to COVID-19.

      Dr. David Beezhold, medical director of infection control and prevention at Elmhurst Hospital, urges calm in regard to COVID-19. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Dr. Robert Citronberg, director of infectious disease at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, says transmission activity of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 remains low. There have been 19 cases in Illinois as of Tuesday afternoon.

    Dr. Robert Citronberg, director of infectious disease at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, says transmission activity of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 remains low. There have been 19 cases in Illinois as of Tuesday afternoon. Courtesy of Advocate Aurora Health

  • Dr. Irfan Hafiz, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine hospitals in McHenry, Huntley and Northwestern Woodstock, advises people to get their flu shot and wash their hands frequently, but otherwise to go about life as usual and stay calm in light of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

    Dr. Irfan Hafiz, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine hospitals in McHenry, Huntley and Northwestern Woodstock, advises people to get their flu shot and wash their hands frequently, but otherwise to go about life as usual and stay calm in light of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Courtesy of Northwestern Medicine

  • Dr. David Beezhold, medical director of infection control and prevention at Elmhurst Hospital, urges calm in regard to COVID-19. "To constantly say it's inevitable that it's going to skyrocket is just not true," Beezhold said. "It's not necessarily inevitable with good infection control measures."

      Dr. David Beezhold, medical director of infection control and prevention at Elmhurst Hospital, urges calm in regard to COVID-19. "To constantly say it's inevitable that it's going to skyrocket is just not true," Beezhold said. "It's not necessarily inevitable with good infection control measures." Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/13/2020 6:14 PM

The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is here, but there's no need to hoard bottled water or buy extra toilet paper, suburban infectious disease experts say.

While the coronavirus is causing infections in the region, doctors say several facts about the illness and the public response can provide reassurance.

 

Among those urging preparedness over panic are Dr. David Beezhold, medical director of infection control and prevention at Elmhurst Hospital; Dr. Irfan Hafiz, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine hospitals in McHenry, Huntley and Northwestern Woodstock; and Dr. Robert Citronberg, director of infectious disease at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

Here are nine reasons they give to stay calm.

1. The number of cases is 'not huge.'

The number of confirmed worldwide cases of COVID-19 is roughly 118,000, according to the World Health Organization's situation tracker, since the virus began spreading in late December in Wuhan, China. In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases was 1,629 as of Friday afternoon. Worldwide there have been 4,291 deaths, and in the U.S., 41.

Illinois has reported 46 confirmed cases and zero deaths, as of Friday afternoon.

But context matters, Beezhold said. And when put in context, the number of coronavirus cases is relatively low, doctors say.

Example: the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there have been 34 million illnesses, 350,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths from influenza this season.

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This is not to say it's time to panic about the flu, but public service announcement courtesy of Hafiz: Get your flu shot. It's not too late for the "herd immunity" the vaccine provides to help stop the spread of the flu.

Another point of context, the H1N1, or "swine flu" outbreak in 2009 and 2010 caused an estimated 60.8 million cases and 12,469 deaths in the U.S. alone.

2. A dramatic rise in cases isn't a given.

"To constantly say it's inevitable that it's going to skyrocket is just not true," Beezhold said. "It's not necessarily inevitable with good infection control measures."

3. Containment is possible.

Remember those two cases of the new coronavirus treated at Amita St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates? A Chicago woman in her 60s who had traveled to China and her husband? Those cases were identified Jan. 25 and 31. Then a month went by until the region's next cases were identified in early March.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"That was two positive cases in that area over a month ago and we haven't seen a significant rise," Beezhold said.

4. Spread is slowing in China.

News of the illness' spread slowing at its epicenter in China began as long as a week ago, and the number of new cases discovered each day in the country has continued to fall. Citronberg and Hafiz said looking to China, Italy and other affected countries can give clues as to what might happen here.

5. Basic prevention measures work.

The new coronavirus spreads two ways: From respiratory droplets in the air and from contact with items contaminated by droplets. When someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, droplets can travel up to 6 feet.

Staying farther than 6 feet away from others -- a strategy called "social distancing" in infectious disease lingo -- helps prevent future virus spread from airborne droplets. And frequent hand-washing helps prevent future spread from contact.

Momentum has turned toward social distancing with organizers canceling conventions and other large gatherings, which doctors say is a smart precaution.

"We need to prepare, not panic," Hafiz said.

6. It's not a death sentence.

The new coronavirus typically causes mild symptoms such as coughing and fever in people who are young and otherwise healthy, though they still can transmit it to others.

Doctors estimate that between 80% and 85% of all COVID-19 cases involve no symptoms or mild symptoms from which people can recover on their own. The disease has an estimated 3% mortality rate, but that likely could decline as more cases are identified.

"It's not going to be the end of civilization," Citronberg said.

People 70 or older, or who have chronic conditions or compromised immune systems, are at a higher risk.

"For young healthy people, the risk of get seriously ill or dying -- while it's not zero -- it's pretty low," he said.

7. A phone call is all it takes.

Feeling sick? Pick up the phone.

Many area hospitals have coronavirus hotlines set up or special phone triage protocols to help determine whether someone's symptoms and travel history indicate they could have contracted the COVID-19 virus.

Even with suspected exposure, if a patient is younger than 70 and otherwise healthy, Hafiz said, the advice likely will be to isolate at home and use the same remedies that help with any other virus.

If symptoms worsen, a call to the doctor remains the first step, as they can coordinate whether testing, treatment or hospitalization is necessary.

8. Hospitals know what they're doing.

Toss aside the constant legislative fight about how to pay for health insurance. Doctors agree, the actual care provided in the U.S. is the best in the world. Hospitals in the suburbs have infectious disease experts on staff and are coordinating with county health departments, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the CDC to manage response to the new coronavirus and control spread.

9. Coronaviruses don't like summer.

This new coronavirus is a member of a family of viruses that can affect people and animals and can cause mild illnesses such as colds, or more severe illnesses. In general, this class of viruses doesn't like the heat. With time, temperature rise and preventive measures, doctors say, the illness could ease.

"We are hopeful it will follow the trend of the other coronaviruses and start to dissipate when the weather gets warmer and more humid," Citronberg said.

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