Medical Examiner

So, Should You Panic About Coronavirus Now?

A man in a mask and protective goggles on an empty bus.
A worker in Tehran, Iran, cleans a bus to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 illness.
Atta Kenare/Getty Images

A coronavirus outbreak is likely coming to the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday morning. The number of cases here is up to 57, with health officials saying they are just trying to buy time before it starts spreading within communities. Globally, the virus is in more than 30 countries, and though the World Health Organization isn’t yet calling it a pandemic, it seems like it’s only a matter of time. You probably have a lot of questions and concerns right about now. We’re here to help.

I thought the coronavirus was sort of under control. What happened?

It’s just hard to tell how a new virus is going to behave at first. It did look like the number of new cases in China was going down, and in fact, it still looks like that, according to the World Health Organization. But in recent days, there have been more and more cases reported around the world, and more in the U.S., pushing the chance that the virus will be contained lower and lower. “The cat’s out of the bag,” says Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC–Davis Health.

Should I panic?

Hm. On the one hand: “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a press conference Tuesday. On the other hand, it’s easier to prepare for a worst-case scenario when you’re calm, and also, most people who get the coronavirus end up being just fine. Panicking still won’t help, but you should continue to take precautions like hand-washing, and you should also listen to public health officials’ advice.

What can I actually do?

If things reach pandemic status, you might be spending more time at home. But that will really depend on what’s happening where you live. Messomier advised that people come up with the same plans they might if they knew they were going to be stuck at home with a fever for a while: ask your employer about working from home, ask your school about a plan for closure and tele-schooling, and check if your doctor or insurance plan offers a way to chat with a doctor virtually.

My friend is stocking up on canned food, should I stock up on canned food?

“That’s not something I’m recommending,” says Blumberg, who suggests most routines won’t come to a halt (with the caveat that he can’t predict the future). “People who are sick will hopefully stay home.” Keeping up with regular grocery shopping seems like precaution enough here.

Am I likely to get the new coronavirus?

Researchers are still figuring that out. One epidemiologist estimated that 40–70 percent of people will get the disease, according to a piece in the Atlantic helpfully titled “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus.” At Stat, reporter Sharon Begley lays out two scenarios based on interviews with epidemiologists if the virus isn’t contained: In one, COVID-19 becomes one of the mundane coronaviruses that’s always floating around in the world (there are currently four; they cause about a fourth of all colds). In another, it’s less mundane and more like the flu, which causes a lot of havoc every year.

So I am going to die of coronavirus?

No, almost certainly not! The death rate outside of Wuhan, China, is 0.7 percent, according to the WHO. In Wuhan, where hospitals are overwhelmed, it’s 2–4 percent. Those numbers might be high because they don’t account for people who experienced the virus without any major symptoms and weren’t screened for it, essentially artificially reducing the denominator. The virus is also mostly a concern for older people, and people who are otherwise immunocompromised; it damages the lungs, potentially leading to pneumonia and in severe cases, organ failure. Typically, severe symptoms from viruses are also a concern for babies, but so far, the symptoms in babies have been mild.

Wait, then why did the coronavirus kill a 29-year-old doctor?

Because he was a doctor. “It’s a dosage thing,” explains Anna Yeung-Cheung, a virologist at Manhattanville College. Health care workers are exposed to far more people, often pretty sick people, than the average person, and therefore stand to come in contact with higher levels of the virus. A lot of virus can still overwhelm a healthy immune system.

What about global travel, should I avoid airports and stay put?

This might not be the ideal time for the cautious among us to plan a nonrefundable international trip months down the line, as it’s hard to predict what summer will hold, but you also don’t need to cancel anything, probably? Honestly, it’s hard to say. “Our travel notices are changing almost daily,” the CDC’s Messonnier said. The CDC has a handy page where they post travel advisories, and where you can search for the particular country you’re traveling to. So far, they’re only recommending avoiding all non-essential travel to China (excluding Hong Kong) and South Korea on account of the coronavirus. For Italy, where the virus has made plenty of headlines by colliding with Fashion Week, the CDC recommends extra precautions, like washing your hands a lot, or perhaps staying home if you have a chronic illness and don’t absolutely have to go.

Blumberg thinks that trying to restrict travel is reactionary but notes that this tendency itself might be a reason to avoid getting on a plane: “My worry is if you travel somewhere, will you be able to return home?,” he says. “We saw what happened with the Diamond Princess.” Or take the man in Miami who traveled to China and developed flulike symptoms upon returning home: He got a test to make sure it wasn’t coronavirus and even with insurance is stuck with a $1,400 bill.

That seems like a reason to panic.

Yes. Getting basic medical care, staying home from an hourly wage job, and caring for kids that can’t be in school are expensive. If coronavirus spreads within the United States, it’s these kinds of financial burdens on folks who don’t have money to spare that stand to hit as hard as the illness itself. That burden will certainly be far more widespread than severe medical complications.