Coronavirus: What you need to know

A new coronavirus has spread from one region in China to dozens of other countries, including the United States.

The virus has infected more than 75,000 people globally, as of Feb. 20. China has reported that more than 2,100 people have died on the mainland from the new virus.

Also, on Feb. 17, 340 American passengers from a cruise ship that was quarantined off the coast of Japan returned to American military bases in California and Texas, where they’ll be quarantined another 14 days. Fourteen of the passengers have been confirmed to have the virus. On Feb. 20, four of them were sent to a hospital in Spokane, Washington, for treatment. Two elderly Japanese passengers who were on the ship died at a hospital in Japan.

The World Health Organization has declared a global emergency, and the U.S. has advised against all travel to China.

Earlier this month the Department of Homeland Security announced that flights to the U.S. with any passengers who have been to China in the previous 14 days will be re-routed to one of 11 U.S. airports, including Dulles International Airport — even if the passenger’s travel history is discovered after the flight takes off.

There are 15 confirmed cases in the U.S., including the first to come from person-to-person contact.

There have been no confirmed cases in the District, Maryland or Virginia so far.

A total of six people in Virginia — including three in Northern Virginia — have been tested for the virus, but all have tested negative, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

In Maryland, two people tested for the virus both tested negative, according to the Maryland Department of Health.

Of five patients tested in D.C., all tested negative as of Feb. 14, D.C.’s Health Department said.

There’s seemingly as much misinformation as information about the virus. So here are some common questions about the coronavirus and what we really know, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Virginia Department of Health and other sources:

Q: What is the coronavirus exactly?

There are lots of coronaviruses, and most aren’t that serious.

The CDC says this is what they call a novel coronavirus — something they haven’t seen in humans before. They’ve got the DNA genome figured out, and it’s likely related to a bat virus, similar to SARS.

More on the coronavirus outbreak

Q: What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath, possibly nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Q: It kind of sounds like the regular flu, doesn’t it?

True, and many people recover in a few days, just like with the flu.

But people with weak immune systems, or those who are very young or elderly, have suffered pneumonia and kidney failure, and some have died.

Q: How is it spread?

At first, they thought this coronavirus was only spread by human-animal contact. Wuhan, China, has a major seafood and animal market, where animals are reportedly killed and skinned in front of customers so they know they’re getting what they paid for. But now they’re finding that humans can pass the virus to each other.

The CDC confirmed on Jan. 30 that the virus spread between two people in the United States, representing the first instance of person-to-person spread with this new virus.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering has a comprehensive map that is tracking global cases of coronavirus in real-time.

Q: What does “global emergency” mean?

The World Health Organization’s declaration Jan. 30 is a result of “sustained transmission from one person to another to another to another, in countries outside of the primary country, which is China,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Q: If you get exposed, how long before you actually get sick?

Two to 14 days.

Q: Why does it take so long to find out whether someone is infected?

The CDC has to confirm “in a really solid way” that this is a viral infection, Fauci told WTOP. That said, the CDC is working on a more rapid test, but that’s weeks away from being distributed to U.S. clinics.

Q: Is there a vaccine?

Not yet. They’re working on it.

Q: Are antibiotics any help?

Nope. They’re good for bacteria, but this is a virus.

Q: What are they doing with patients who have the disease?

Making sure they don’t dehydrate, monitoring the functions of major organs and treating symptoms as they pop up.

Q: Should I be freaking out? 

You should never be freaking out when it comes to public health.

If you haven’t been to an area of Asia that’s had an outbreak, or been near someone who has, “you’re likely OK,” the University of Chicago Medical School says. If you have, and you feel sick, call your doctor.

Fran Phillips, deputy secretary for public health for Maryland’s Department of Health, said you should call ahead to the doctor’s office and not just show up.

“Let the people at the medical facility know in advance so they can prepare for your arrival,” Phillips said.

In addition to a medical exam, Phillips said, doctors will ask patients about their travel and contact history. If you meet the guidelines issued to doctors from the CDC and you’re labeled a potential case, blood and respiratory samples will be sent in for testing.

“At this point, the testing is not available in medical labs; the testing occurs at the CDC. So that’s why the screening is so very important,” Phillips said.

While the CDC “considers this is a very serious public health threat, based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time.”

Q: What about possible cases in this area?

To keep up with the latest on coronavirus statuses within the region, check out each health department’s website:

Q: And the airports?

Screening processes started at five U.S. airports earlier this month, and they’ve since been expanded to another 15, including Dulles International Airport.

Travelers arriving from China are getting their temperatures taken, and must answer written questions about their travel and provide their contact information to the CDC.

If a passenger is sick, they’re evaluated to determine whether they should be hospitalized. If they’re not, they get a health information card telling them what symptoms to watch for.

Q: What about animal products from China?

The CDC “does not have any evidence to suggest” they’re a problem, but they acknowledge it’s “a rapidly evolving situation, and information will be updated as it becomes available.”

Q: So, what should I be doing?

The CDC says it isn’t recommending any new precautions, other than not traveling to Wuhan unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But, like I said, there are lots of kinds of coronaviruses. The Chicago medical school says while the ease of transmission “can sound scary, … it’s important to know that influenza is also transmitted the same way.”

Thus, the CDC is recommending the usual steps:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Follow the CDC on Twitter for the latest announcements on the outbreak.

You know the drill. You got this.

WTOP’s Mike Murillo Michelle Basch and Jack Moore, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.

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