EDITORIAL: Take smart steps to avoid all bugs

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Health Officials in hazmat suits check body temperatures of passengers arriving from the city of Wuhan Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, at the airport in Beijing, China. Nearly two decades after the disastrously-handled SARS epidemic, China’s more-open response to a new virus signals its growing confidence and a greater awareness of the pitfalls of censorship, even while the government is as authoritarian as ever. (AP Photo Emily Wang)

As the toll of infected patients and fatalities continues to climb, the seriousness of the China-based novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) should not be underestimated.

But the health risk, particularly in regions like central Pennsylvania, should likewise not be overstated.

After all, the virus is still predominately China-based, and the U.S. government is working hard to keep it that way through travel restrictions, health monitoring and, where appropriate, quarantines.

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More:China market plunges as coronavirus death toll grows

And don’t let the name scare you. A coronavirus is not some exotic new disease. Coronaviruses have been around forever, and there are hundreds of them, although only a handful affect humans. But you may have already had one. The four most common types are relatively mild and usually cause low-level to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses with symptoms such as coughing and a runny nose, not unlike the common cold.

That said, they can also be deadly. The well-documented outbreaks of both SARS and MERS are more virulent examples of coronaviruses. Like 2019-nCoV, they triggered initial concern along with alarming numbers of early illnesses and fatalities. But both were brought under control fairly quickly.

And both might offer clues to arresting the current outbreak.

“Thanks to research investments into the SARS and MERS outbreaks, (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) scientists and grantees are better prepared to develop diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines against 2019-nCoV,” according to the NIAID. “In fact, within two weeks of the discovery of 2019-nCoV, NIAID researchers had determined how the virus enters cells.”

Pennsylvania, of course, has not remained entirely untouched by the virus. While none of the 12 confirmed cases in the U.S. have been local, several residents who have recently traveled to China are under watch. And the state Department of Health has issued new guidelines to all travelers returning from mainland China and/or that country’s Hubei Province, where the outbreak originated. 

While the best defense against any virus is to avoid coming in contact with it — not currently a tall order in Pennsylvania — 2019-nCoV is easily spread from person to person. Sneezing, coughing, even shaking hands can result in infection, as can touching an infected surface.

In that sense, the coronavirus resembles a far more serious threat to Pennsylvanians: the flu.

In fact, while Pennsylvania has yet to see its first case of 2019-nCoV (and hopefully won’t), as of Feb. 1 the state reported nearly 60,000 case of the flu statewide, in all 67 counties. More than 1,300 patients have landed in the hospital, and 40 have died.

All of which is why it makes sense to follow the best practices for reducing the possibility of contracting any virus, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after visiting the restroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water aren’t available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick. (Trust us, your workmates will value not being exposed to your germs far more than your selfless work ethic.)
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue away.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces with cleaning sprays or wipes.

The new coronavirus may be getting the headlines, but the flu is what’s getting us sick.