There are still new things being learned about the international outbreak of novel coronavirus, but the risk of infection in Orange County remains low, according to panelists at a two-hour public seminar Monday night at UC Irvine.
Panelists from the university’s staff joined Orange County officials in discussing the virus that has been blamed for more than 1,000 deaths and more than 42,000 confirmed infections in China. The disease has been found in more than two dozen countries, including 13 cases in the United States — seven of them in California.
The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30, about a month after cases of the new strain of coronavirus, officially known as 2019-nCoV, were first reported in Wuhan, China.
The panelists also discussed steps taken to protect community members at the local and county levels. One case has been identified in Orange County.
Coronaviruses can cause illness of varying severity, ranging from the common cold to serious respiratory diseases.
“As of today, things are fluid. Things are changing on an hourly basis ... [and] I think we’ve all been inundated with information regarding the coronavirus outbreak,” said Sanghyuk Shin, an assistant professor of nursing and director of UCI’s Infectious Disease Science Initiative. “Some folks have said that misinformation is the one thing that is spreading faster than the virus itself.”
“With all the information we’re getting, what can you trust? What do we accept?” Shin said.
“The thing I think for all of us to realize is when we’re thinking through the epidemiology of this is an awful lot of the initial data is for people who have had the most severe disease,” said Matthew Zahn, medical director of the Orange County Health Care Agency’s Division of Epidemiology & Assessment.
“We’ve learned an awful lot very quickly, but we still have a lot to learn about people who have more mild disease who did not need to be admitted to the hospital and what populations are affected that way,” Zahn said.
Milder symptoms of novel coronavirus can include a runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever. In more severe cases, it can lead to pneumonia, breathing problems or death. Older people and those with preexisting medical conditions appear more vulnerable to becoming severely ill, according to the World Health Organization.
The virus can be transmitted among humans, usually via close contact with an infected person, such as in a household, workplace or healthcare center, WHO says. There is no evidence that pets or other companion animals have been infected with or have spread 2019-nCoV, according to the agency.
Members of the public asked panelists whether the coronavirus could mutate to a more benign strain similar to the 2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, an illness caused by a coronavirus. Some also asked about the effectiveness of masks, where to look for accurate information and how to address sentiments against Asian communities.
Hannah Nguyen, a fourth-year psychology and sociology major at UCI, said she didn’t think much about the new virus at first but wanted to understand it more after seeing many of her international classmates wearing a mask. She said some of her friends were the targets of racist comments, though they aren’t Chinese.
“I just want to see what the big deal about [coronavirus] was. Why was everybody so scared about it?” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said she felt the seminar would offer more accurate information than she would get on social media, where “a lot of the news and fear has been disseminated,” and wanted to hear firsthand from health professionals.
Alison Holman, a UCI associate professor of nursing, said media coverage of major events that affect large populations — 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, hurricanes, the Ebola virus — tends to be sensationalized, which can increase the amount of acute stress in a population. Additionally, she said, it increases people’s fears about new events.
“The coronavirus, we’ve seen a lot of the same kind of thing — a lot of media that focuses on these extreme, negative events. That’s what draws our attention when we see the super sick person or the super scary statistics and when we focus on that,” Holman said. “One of the things that’s really important to remember from a research point of view is that you’re only focusing on a small portion of the whole epidemic.”
Holman said people who have contracted the virus and experienced more mild symptoms are not highlighted by the media.
She said it’s important to get factual information to the public.
"[Misinformation] spreads like wildfire, and that’s the virus that I think is more important for us right now to contend with,” she said. “When you lack that ability to communicate the accurate information, what happens is that rumors start. And what happens when rumors start? People start popping up on their phones and it goes to social media and everybody’s whipping around.”
Holman suggested that audience members visit WHO’s “mythbusters” website and avoid overexposure to media reports.
There is no vaccine to prevent the novel coronavirus, but county officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people wash their hands often and with soap for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching their face with unwashed hands and avoid people who are sick.
Officials also suggest that people stay home when they are sick, cover their coughs and sneezes and clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
As for masks, WHO says people need to wear a mask only if coughing or sneezing or caring for a person who may be infected with 2019-nCoV. Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand washing, the agency says.