Recently we have seen commentary suggesting that COVID-19 is no big deal and that we should not worry. This sends a message that encourages complacency in the face of a growing public health emergency.
While the media have been accused of fearmongering, for the most part journalists at reputable news outlets have been scrambling to provide updated, factual and accurate information on the outbreak, government responses, and best practices to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent unnecessary illness and death. Locally, The Era and the Olean Times Herald have done an excellent job covering the crisis.
We also see memes and other social media posts decrying the response as rash and foolish, even knee-jerk. Comparisons are made to influenza and other illnesses. The problem with those comparisons is that they are premature. At present it seems as though the flu kills more people, but that is because COVID-19 is just getting started. Existing data suggest that this virus is about 10 times worse than influenza.
In a democracy where we expect the government to limit civil liberties only under the most dire circumstances, it is our responsibility as citizens to do our part to prevent the need for such measures. (As a columnist writing on a different topic observed a few days ago, “responsibility is better than bans.”) Gov. Cuomo at present is resisting the call for government-mandated shelter in place policies and restriction of movement. We pray such measures do not become necessary here as they have been in Italy and other countries.
As a biologist, one of us has been closely following the development of the COVID-19 spread on a daily basis since January because it has had a huge impact on people’s lives in China, where her family and many friends are. She has connected with colleagues there about the threat and has been proactive in raising awareness and funds to help front-line medical workers as they heroically work to treat those infected and stem the tide of the virus.
Recent news stories suggest the pandemic in China is contained, yet there are still more than 7,000 patients being treated, with more than 2,000 in the ICU. At the same time, numbers are rapidly increasing in several other countries. Outside of China, total confirmed cases in Italy, Iran, Spain and Germany together are more than 80,000 — and increasing even as you read this. As of now, the United States is trailing behind Germany by only 3,000 cases. That number increases daily.
We would like to clear up the misconception that young people will not die from the COVID-19 virus. Evidence from other countries such as China and South Korea has shown that anyone may carry the virus, and while the risk remains higher for those who are elderly or immunosuppressed, children and younger people are also at risk of dying, though at a much lower rate. The situation is changing rapidly.
In fact, those in the 18-39 age group have a 0.2% death rate — 10 times the death rate for flu in the same age group! That means that for every 1,000 young people who are infected, two lives will probably be lost. Some 20-year-olds have died because of coronavirus in the past two months. Youth is not an exemption nor is it about politics. All lives matter.
The statistics for those over 40 are more alarming. The take-home message: anyone could die from the coronavirus infection, although most should be able to survive. There are still too many unknowns, which includes any possible permanent organ damage after recovery from COVID-19.
We do know that someone may be carrying the virus and may be contagious without showing symptoms. If someone waits until they have a fever to get tested and tests positive, it means they could have been contagious for one to two weeks. How many people do you see, meet, shake hands with, hug in two weeks?
The one best practice that has proven successful in combating the spread of the novel coronavirus is social distancing. Every time we travel, we run the risk of contracting the virus and of spreading it ourselves. The problem is symptoms may not be visible right away, if at all. Stay at least 6 feet away from people. Do not shake hands. Cough and/or sneeze into a tissue or your arm.
WASH YOUR HANDS WITH SOAP AND WATER.
Just stay where you are and do not travel unless it is absolutely necessary. Many governments, including New York state’s, have put measures in place to help in this regard. Restaurants offer takeout only options; bars, gyms and other gathering places are closed. Please do not replace these activities with social gatherings at home. At present, the U.S. is ranked sixth in the world in total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19. That number will rise with increased testing and reporting, and as the virus spreads as a result of social contact.
For accurate, up-to-date information, please view the Cattaraugus County Health Department website (cattco.org/term/coronavirus), the Centers for Disease Control website (cdc.gov/coronavirus) or the World Health Organization website (who.int). For information on the worldwide spread of COVID-19, please view worldometers.info/coronavirus/.
Our current behaviors will dictate if we can still have an enjoyable summer this year. Let’s all do our own part NOW!
(St. Bonaventure University’s Xiaoning Zhang is professor of biology and director of the Biochemistry Program, Pauline Hoffmann is associate professor and former dean of the Jandoli School of Communication, Mary Rose Kubal is associate professor of political science and acting director of the International Studies Program and Robin Valeri is professor of psychology.)