You have a fever and a cough. How do you know if this is the flu or the new coronavirus that is sweeping across continents and upheaving travel and daily plans of millions if not billions of individuals?

The answer is simple. If you live in the United States as of Feb. 1, 2020, there is no evidence of the widespread infection of the coronavirus here, so it is highly unlikely that you have the coronavirus infection. If you traveled to China or have been in contact with someone who traveled to China in the past 14 days, then there is a need to take extra precautions.

So, like a real estate agent, I tell my patients who fear that they have the coronavirus that it’s all about “location location location.” The coronavirus epidemic is happening in China and spreading among the general population there, but here in the United States, there is no evidence of the spread of the virus in the general population.

What we do need to be concerned about in the United States is the flu. Schools are closing, people are missing work, and the emergency rooms are being flooded with patients who have fever, cough and body ache or ILI (influenza-like illness).

Without a doubt, we have a widespread infection of the flu in our community at this time. In fact, the most recent data shows that nearly 15 of every 100 patients coming to the emergency room have a flu-like illness, a number which is usually only 2 or 3 during the summer and early fall (non-flu season).

While we cannot stop the entry of the flu virus into the general population, we can do a great deal to stop the entry and spread of the coronavirus. First, travel from China must be restricted. On average nearly 8,000 or more visitors come from China each day to the United States. Temporary, until the virus is in better control in China, the travel ban will prevent new cases from entering the country. Second, screening at airports is critical. And lastly, we need to closely monitor those who have returned from China or those who have had contact with persons who have returned from China.

A critical game-changer with the coronavirus is the recent finding that persons who do not show symptoms of infection, those who are asymptomatic, can still transmit the virus. This is truly a cause of concern because the asymptomatic person may not know to take preventive precautions and can unknowingly infect others.

The coronavirus has a high mortality rate compared to the flu. About 1 per 1,000 people who become ill with flu will die; in the case of the coronavirus, 30 per 1,000 persons infected will die.

So what can we do as individuals? We need to know how to stop the spread of respiratory viruses such as the flu, Coronavirus and the common cold viruses. Think of the mnemonic WASH.

W for washing your hands and using hand hygiene frequently. Studies show that children who washed their hands 4 times a day at daycare had 21% fewer sick days due to a respiratory illness. 

A for avoiding touching your face and surfaces. Studies show that we touch our faces 16 times per hour and this is how the virus comes from surfaces to our faces.

S for sneezes and cough must be covered. Sneezing expels 40,000 droplet particles and a single cough expels 3,000 droplets which then are inhaled or touched by others and the virus spreads.

H for home-rest. We need to stay at home when we are sick so as not to spread the virus. Social distancing is critical in stopping the spread of the virus. And if you are in the same home consider a mask and keeping a distance from the infected person for three to six weeks.

With the coronavirus, we are watching the birth of a virus, and it’s journey through the human population. Where it will end will depend not as much on the virus but on how well society and human hosts are able to contain it. Our window of opportunity is now. 

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