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Coronavirus Update: Infectious Disease Expert Details What You Need to Know

| Date Posted: 3/5/2020

As concern continues to grow about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, FirstHealth of the Carolinas infectious disease specialist Paul Jawanda, M.D. explains more about what you need to know. Visit our resources page for the latest information on the spread of COVID-19. 


The North Carolina Division of Public Health has established a coronavirus hotline with access to a nurse and general questions about coronavirus. The number to call is (866) 462-3821.


What is COVID-19?


On Feb. 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced an official name for the disease that is causing the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak, first identified in Wuhan, China. The new name of this disease is coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated as COVID-19. In COVID-19, ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease. Formerly, this disease was referred to as “2019 novel coronavirus” or “2019-nCoV.”


While COVID-19 is used to refer to the disease, the name given to the actual virus that causes it is SARS-CoV-2 (“severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”). SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19. There are several types of human coronaviruses that commonly cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses, which are genetically different from SARS-CoV-2.


COVID-19 is a new disease, caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans. It was first discovered in December 2019, and it represents a zoonotic virus that had moved from animals in nature to humans. On March 11, the World Health Organization characterized the spread of the disease as a pandemic. 


Other novel coronaviruses that have caused disease in man include SARS-CoV (discovered in 2003, now no longer circulating) and Middle East respiratory syndrome–related coronavirus (MERS-CoV), discovered in 2012 and still circulating sporadically in the Arabian Peninsula.


What are the symptoms of this coronavirus, and who is most at risk? 


For many patients, fever, cough and shortness of breath would be the initial symptoms, and it can progress to pneumonia or more severe respiratory disease. Symptoms would typically appear 5 to 7 days after exposure, and at the longest 14 days after exposure. A great many patients have recovered with no hospitalization.


It is notable that this is a new disease discovered only three months ago. As we learn more, it is likely that we will discover that a moderate amount of infected people have few symptoms. Although the current risk of death has been estimated from 1.4% to 2%, many experts suspect this number will lower as we better determine how many people experience illness with few symptoms.


Children have been largely spared by COVID-19 (very few cases reported). Older patients, as well as individuals with chronic medical conditions (heart disease, lung disease, diabetes), have been more likely to have severe illness. This is in stark contrast to the 2009 pandemic H1N1 Influenza. In 2009, this virus disproportionately affected the young, with older adults (>60 years old) being much less affected, likely due to immunity from exposure to influenza strains in their younger years of life.


How can I protect myself and my family? 


We are encouraging the community to take the common-sense steps that you already take to prevent the spread of infection. The single most important thing you can do is practice proper hand hygiene and wash your hands frequently. It’s also important for individuals to stay home if they are sick — avoid going to school, work or any public places.


While we are getting past the highest peak of flu activity, we continue to see a significant amount of influenza in our community, and in North Carolina. Flu continues to be a much bigger risk to the average person in the United States. If you haven’t already received a flu shot, then you should certainly consider getting one now.


What should I do if I think I have coronavirus? 


We appreciate that this a fluid and evolving epidemic, and we continue to pay close attention to updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


If you’ve had contact with someone who is known to have COVID-19, and you have symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, then it is important that you call ahead before visiting your doctor, the hospital or a convenient care/urgent care clinic.


These guidelines are provided by the CDC, and following this procedure allows your provider to identify the best option for you and take the necessary steps to manage your condition without putting others at risk.


What is FirstHealth doing to prepare for potential cases of coronavirus? 


This is a team effort. Many FirstHealth professionals, including infectious disease specialists, are closely monitoring the evolving outbreak of COVID-19 and taking proactive steps to be prepared for potential cases. We are following the latest CDC recommendations related to surveillance, evaluation and response, and our infection control staff maintains ongoing communication with local, state and federal agencies with the latest updates on surveillance and response plans.


Currently, we identify at-risk patients by first obtaining a thorough travel history of the patient. If any patient has symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath and has been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, then that patient is immediately placed into isolation for further evaluation, assessment and treatment.


Where can I get more information?


The CDC is the best source of information about COVID-19. For more information, visit their Coronavirus Disease site, which has more detail information about the virus and the number of cases in the United States and around the world.


The North Carolina Division of Public Health has established a coronavirus hotline with access to a nurse and general questions about coronavirus. The number to call is (866) 462-3821.


Paul Jawanda, M.D., is a fellowship-trained infectious disease specialist with FirstHealth of the Carolinas. He earned his medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor and completed an internal medicine residency and his infectious disease fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is board-certified in infectious disease.

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