“How serious do you think this coronavirus is going to be?” asked my coffee shop acquaintance. “Pretty bad, I’m guessing, but why ask me?” “Well, you’re a scientist, I thought you might know something…” He tailed off. To be clear, I’m not a scientist—I choose to call myself a science writer, but heck, anyone can do that. It’s all about figuring out whom to trust, and whom to doubt. So with what follows: check it out. I’m not a doctor, but the folks writing on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and WHO (World Health Organization) are. That’s where I go to for information.

Epidemic curve of 12,668 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported outside of China, March 3, 2020. (WHO)

I’m typing this column because last night—I’m writing this on Thursday March 5th—our President downplayed the severity of Covid-19, or coronavirus, by suggesting to Fox News viewers that it’s OK for people with the virus to go to work. “So, if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work,” he said. “Some of them go to work, but they get better.” It does appear to be the case that most of us who get it will experience it as a very mild disease, like a cold. But people at high risk—health workers (who may get exposed multiple times) and the elderly (whose immune system isn’t as good as it once was)—are in danger of dying from the virus. Unless you’ve got it, you don’t have any immunity (i.e. no antibodies) to coronavirus: from our immune system’s POV, it’s an unknown foe.

For the record—you already know this, right?—the CDC’s advice is for anyone exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus (fever, coughing, shortness of breath) to stay home until they’ve contacted their doctor or local public health. The CDC website states, “…restrict activities outside your home, except for getting medical care…Do not go to work, school, or public areas. Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.” Thanks a lot, POTUS. This is my health you’re screwing with.

To pour salt on the wound, the person POTUS asked to lead the charge against the virus isn’t a medical professional but VP Mike Pence, about as bad a choice as anyone could make. This is the guy who wrote, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” (Smoking was then, in 2000, and is now, the leading preventable cause of death in the US.) This the same Mike Pence who claimed, in a 2002 CNN interview, “Condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted disease…The only truly safe sex is no sex.” Just last year, Pence told an interviewer “America has the cleanest air and water in the world.” (We’re actually somewhere between 10th and 29th, depending on what you’re measuring.) For Pence’s literally fatal response to HIV in Scott County, Indiana, see here.

All this is to say, don’t get your coronavirus information from politicians, who just may not have your and my health uppermost in their minds. Instead, check online sites such as the CDC and WHO. Also, here’s a short YouTube video from the doctor who led the global response to SARS in 2003, David Heymann. You’ll learn that while there’s much still unknown about coronavirus—including how severe it is and what the extent of it is likely to be both here and worldwide—the professionals do know that:

  • The viral droplets spread through the air. Please! cover your mouth with a tissue or elbow if you cough or sneeze
  • Facemasks do diddly squat…unless you’re caring for someone already infected or, of course, if you’re coughing yourself
  • Fist bumps, elbow bumps are much safer than handshakes. (Thanks to one of my editors for reminding me of this as she held up her elbow yesterday when I went to hug her.)
  • We all unknowingly touch our faces about 20 times an hour. Since the virus can live for several hours on hard surfaces (and for days on soft surfaces), and your hands are only clean until the next surface you touch, it behooves you to soap-wash your hands (or use a hand sanitizer with 60% or more alcohol) regularly when you’re out and about.
  • A vaccine to protect against the virus isn’t going to be available for at least a year
  • At this point, coronavirus is small potatoes compared with the regular flu (see graphic). So get your flu shot!
  • You know, of course, that antibiotics are useless against viruses, including flu, MER, SARS and Covid-19…
  • …as are attempts to catch infected people entering the country, since during the incubation period (up to two weeks) they show no symptoms
  • This is a warning shot. As both global populations of humans and food animals grow, we’re going to be living closer and closer to those animals whose viruses can mutate to us.

CDC estimates, October 1, 2019, through February 22, 2020, for flu.

So, to try to answer my pal’s question, how bad is it? It’s bad. 76 countries, 93,000 cases, over 3,000 deaths, growing exponentially. Going to get a lot worse. Wash your hands, folks. Fist-bump. Stay clear of the rest of us if you have a fever, etc. (and we’ll do the same for you).

And for God’s sake, turn off Fox News!

“Don’t touch your face!” (Say health officials right before…touching their faces.)