Medical Examiner

Don’t Panic About the Coronavirus. Act.

It’s here. You can help.

Empty restaurant tables.
A deserted restaurant in New Rochelle, a city just north of New York City, which has become the state’s largest source of COVID-19 infections. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Update, 10:45 p.m.: Trump announced a ban on travel from Europe, the NBA has suspended its season, and Tom Hanks has the coronavirus. The weight of this whole thing just now hitting you? Us too. Read below for more.

We are experiencing a global pandemic, the World Health Organization declared Wednesday afternoon. The novel coronavirus, which jumped to humans via bats and maybe pangolins late last year, has now spread around the world. You are likely very aware of this; this past week felt like a tipping point in the level of concern and attention in the U.S., as cases here rise and this becomes not just a global health problem but something that is affecting our daily lives. You probably have a lot of questions. Here’s an update on what we know now, what you can do, and what to expect.

What does it mean that we’re in a pandemic?

“There is no mathematical formula, there is no algorithm,” WHO’s Michael J Ryan told reporters in a press conference Wednesday. WHO hopes that the description can “galvaniz[e] the world to fight,” rather than freak people out.

Is it time to panic?

It certainly makes sense if you are panicking, or at least freaked out. We’re on the brink of something unknown. But panicking still doesn’t help—taking the appropriate precautions is what helps.

Here’s a reminder of how to parse your own personal risk: The coronavirus is not that deadly for large swaths of the population, as emergency medicine physician Jeremy Faust describes in Slate. But it is deadly for certain groups of people, and everyone needs to take action to protect those people. This includes folks with underlying medical conditions, who are bracing for the worst, as the spouse of a man with a rare form of muscular dystrophy describes, and older people, who are more likely to suffer and possibly die if they get the disease. What is currently most essential is doing something you might have heard about called “flattening the curve,” which is best illustrated with a graph:

One of the problems with a disease that spreads this quickly is that if it affects many people at once, hospitals will be overwhelmed by an influx of cases and won’t be able to provide the best medical care to everyone who needs it. That is what the U.S. is currently trying to avoid, but it doesn’t look great given the current rate of spread. “Things will get worse than they are right now,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday. Basic math suggests there could be a few million cases in the states by May, points out Stat news. In Italy, there are more than 10,000 cases, landing some 900 people in intensive care, Ryan said at the WHO press conference. Italian hospitals are overwhelmed, doctors are already having to make difficult decisions about whom to prioritize care for.

So how do we slow the spread?

Take this seriously. Realize that you should take precautions that might feel a bit outlandish given what is going on around you personally, but that’s fine and will make things better in the long run for everybody. What that looks like practically: Wash your hands! No, really, wash your hands a lot. Stay home if you are sick. Work from home—your actual, not-a-café home—if your office is closed. Basically: social distancing.

Beyond that: Don’t buy masks, because medical professionals really need them and they won’t help you. Check in on elderly and sick family and neighbors (probably via phone) to see if there is anything you can do to help them organize their lives and minimize their need to go out (also, just see how they’re doing). If you have bandwidth, taking kids who are stuck at home to do an activity that doesn’t involve crowds, like walk around a park, could be a big help to a family who is going stir crazy. If you are in a position to cancel an event, do so: “halting large events is a no-brainer,” tweeted global outbreak expert Jeremy Konyndyk who also noted that you can put pressure on organizers to cancel if you don’t personally have control. (Konyndyk noted that he’s “skipping a long-planned 10k this weekend” to help normalize cancellations.) While, again, panic isn’t useful, in terms of actions meant to slow the spread of the virus, Konyndyk points out that it is “far easier to overreact and dial back than to underreact and have to catch up”

What do I do if I’m sick?

If it’s mild, stay home. Take precautions as though you might have the virus. If you are worried or if things progress, call your doctor’s office before heading in. A piece in the Atlantic titled “What Will You Do if You Start Coughing” by James Hamblin notably doesn’t provide much in the way of instructions for individuals, because, currently, doctors and hospitals are grappling with an absence of widespread testing for the virus.

What is going on with testing? Do we know how many people have this in the U.S.?

We don’t. Worldwide, there have been more than 120,000 cases, according to Johns Hopkins, and more than 4,000 deaths (also: more than 60,000 people who are confirmed to have had it have recovered). The numbers we do have from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show nearly 1,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday at noon, but this is a low estimate (as is the number of people who recovered). The New York Times is counting just over a thousand as of this writing, and collects data from state and local officials as well as federal. They also have a handy map of where they are located. There are almost certainly more cases than that, since the virus can spread from one person to another with mild or no symptoms.

Early on, the CDC required a fairly specific set of circumstances for people to get tested—a fever accompanied by travel to Wuhan within the past two weeks—so there hasn’t been widespread testing like there has been in other countries. “As diagnostic testing ramps up, it will become clear that this is everywhere,” Helen Chu, an infectious disease specialist in Seattle where cases are concentrated, told Nature last week.

Is it weird if things still feel pretty normal for me?

It’s OK to feel OK right now, whether overall, or for stretches of time when you’re able to forget that all this is happening. Panic is, in fact, at no point going to be helpful (if you’re struggling with it, though, finding a therapist who could do a few video sessions could be useful right now). You’re going to be spending a lot of time at home. Streaming something fun can help—our TV critic Willa Paskin has recommendations. There is nothing wrong with cutting down on news consumption. As long as you continue to follow public health recommendations, you can calmly go about doing what you’re able to do.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to What Next.