Figuring Out How to Fight the Coronavirus

The Wuhan flu from China has been declared an international emergency. Here's what New Yorkers need to know

03 Feb 2020 | 11:14

Influenza is nothing to sneeze at.

It’s a really really contagious viral respiratory illness most likely to arrive from winter into early spring.

The coronavirus from Wuhan, China, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls "a novel (new)" virus, is not our first time at the rodeo.

In the last 101 years, Americans have seen three major flu pandemics (according to World Health Organization, “a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease"): The Spanish flu of 1918, the Asian flu of 1957, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968, plus two close calls, the swine flu of 1976 and the avian (bird) flu of 2003-2005.

Most came and went in one destructive cycle. As Sandra Opdycke, author of "The Flu Epidemic of 1918: America's Experience in the Global Health," notes, the 1918 flu was an exception that circled the globe three times, infecting one out of every four people on earth, and killing at least 50 million in just a few months.

Even an "ordinary” flu season can be calamitous. On average, the CDC estimates anywhere from 12,000 to 50,000 Americans a year will die of influenza and its complications. During the 2017-2018 flu season, CDC counted an estimated 95,000 American flu deaths, the highest number in more than 40 years.

How to Protect Yourself

Now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Wuhan flu an international emergency and the first case of person-to-person transmission has been confirmed in the United States, the question is, how to protect yourself.

There’s no anti-Wuhan vaccine yet, and, says Anthony Fauci M.D., Director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “There is no proven therapy for coronavirus infection.” But there is the CDC list of familiar preventive measures:

* Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

* Don’t touch 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.

Although face masks are selling like the proverbial hot cakes in pharmacies around Manhattan, and in Singapore the government will give every household four free masks, the truth is they’re probably not worth the money if you are healthy with no symptoms of a flu.

The epidemiologists at NYU Health prescribe mouth, nose, and eye masks for people who treat coughing and sneezing patients – or might be coughing or sneezing themselves. But for you? Probably not. Yes, CDC says the mask keeps out large particles like the gunk someone expels in a sneeze or a cough. No, it doesn’t bar microscopic flu viruses released by a sick person breathing out next to you.

Quarantines? Again, not so much. According to Vox health correspondent Julia Belluz and University of Ottawa global health expert Steven J. Hoffman, “Flight bans post-9/11 did not prevent a deadly and prolonged flu season, travel restrictions didn’t cut bird flu infections. swine flu travel restrictions achieved exactly ‘no containment,’ and airport screening after SARS didn’t catch a single case.”

Right now, it’s clear the new flu will be widespread, but no one knows for sure whether it will be more deadly than other forms of flu. There have already been eight cases in the United States, and by Monday morning three patients experiencing possible coronavirus symptoms were under observation in Manhattan and Queens hospitals.

There will inevitably be more potential patients, each requiring a day or more to diagnose. Nonetheless, William Hicks, CEO, NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue, wants New Yorkers to know that "our level of preparedness is high. As part of our ongoing special pathogens preparedness, we are ready to respond to coronavirus and safely manage any patients at risk that might present to any of our system facilities at NYC Health and Hospitals."

For the moment, the best course is to get your regular flu shot and avoid panicking. In the end, like so much in life, this is a story in progress, and your risk of exposure may be a matter of chance, like that of the woman from Taiwan who had planned to book a trip to Wuhan two weeks after the virus was announced but couldn’t - because her Golden Retriever chewed up her passport.

"Our level of preparedness is high ... we are ready to respond to coronavirus and safely manage any patients at risk." William Hicks, CEO, NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue