There's no doubt that the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) sounds scary. But when it comes to the risk of a national outbreak here in the U.S., experts are not overly concerned. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease that originated in Wuhan, China.

By Nicole Harris
January 28, 2020

For the last couple of weeks, medical organizations worldwide have been tracking the spread of coronavirus. This respiratory illness began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, where it’s sickened more than 60,000 people and caused nearly 1,400 deaths. Coronavirus has arrived in America through international travel, and there's been 14 confirmed cases—in Washington, California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) called coronavirus a "global health emergency."

Coronavirus has caused widespread panic among parents—partly because its symptoms (cough, shortness of breath, and fever) are almost identical to influenza, says Miryam Wahrman, PhD, biology professor and director of the microbiology research lab at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World. Some news reports have also exaggerated the seriousness of coronavirus, which has further fueled worry about this unfamiliar disease. 

But here’s the good news: Experts aren’t too concerned about a widespread epidemic. Americans are very unlikely to get coronavirus because of international efforts to contain it. Plus, even if you do contract coronavirus, you’ll probably get better without complications because of our country's high-end medical institutions

Here’s what you need to know about coronavirus—and why experts are advising parents to be more worried about seasonal influenza instead. 

What is Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are common among animals like bats, camels, and cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But seven varieties, called "zoonotic viruses," can be passed from animals to humans, and then from humans to other humans. These diseases often lead to respiratory symptoms that range from mild to severe.

The current coronavirus, COVID-19, is novel (never seen before). Officials have traced the novel coronavirus back to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China. The CDC reported that COVID-19 is a betacoronavirus, which means it originated in bats. It may have spread to another animal before making its way to humans—but that information isn’t known yet. 

Two other novel strains have popped up in recent years. The first was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS or SARS-CoV), which had a 2002-2003 outbreak originating in China—probably from bats or cats. SARS had 8,000 probable cases and 774 deaths, according to the CDC. Thankfully, officials quickly eradicated the disease, and it hasn't shown up in recent years. The second novel coronavirus was Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). This disease showed up in Saudi Arabia in 2012 (presumedly from camels) and sickened thousands of people, says Sharon Nachman, M.D., Director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital. 

While experts still need to conduct more research, they say the current COVID-19 coronavirus has similarities to both SARS and MERS.

People wearing facemasks walk through a train station on the second day of the Lunar New Year of the Rat in Hong Kong on January 26, 2020, as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. - Hong Kong on January 25 declared a mystery virus outbreak as an "emergency" -- the city's highest warning tier -- as authorities ramped up measures aimed at reducing the risk of further infections spreading.
Dale de la Rey/AFP via Getty Images

How Coronavirus Spreads

Officials have determined that the novel coronavirus likely has animal-to-human origins, but it’s now spreading between people in China. Some international travelers are bringing it to other countries like America. Currently two person-to-person transmissions have occurred in the United States—both between travelers from Wuhan and their spouses, who had "close contact" with each other. The CDC says this is likely to occur again at some point, and coronavirus may also spread in healthcare settings. 

Most coronaviruses are contracted through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes. Since the novel coronavirus hasn’t been extensively studied, it’s not clear how easily it spreads. More information is needed before making a definite judgement, but the CDC says Americans are currently at low risk for catching the disease. 

Along with the U.S., 28 countries have confirmed coronavirus cases. These include China, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Check out the CDC’s live global map for updated information. 

Coronavirus Symptoms in Kids and Adults

A definite incubation period for coronavirus has yet to be determined. However, the CDC says that symptoms usually appear within 2 days - 14 days of exposure to the virus. Coronavirus looks very similar to seasonal influenza, since both illnesses affect the respiratory tract. “The only way to differentiate is to do a clinical test,” explains Dr. Wahrman. 

According to the CDC, common coronavirus symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

The severity of symptoms will vary between individuals. Some people get severe respiratory distress that leads to death, while others have minimal side effects.

“Experts are trying to narrow down risk factors associated with this new coronavirus," says Kathleen DiCaprio, M.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus. She adds that "more severe cases seem to be in patients who are older and have pre-existing medical conditions, but experts are still looking into it."

How Dangerous is Coronavirus?

Severe cases of coronavirus can cause respiratory distress and death. Plus, since it’s a new disease, people don’t have any antibodies to combat it, according to Dr. Nachman. “If you're exposed, you most likely will get the illness.” 

Despite the fact that WHO declared coronavirus a "global health emergency," officials aren’t worried about a national outbreak. Indeed, according to a CDC report on the current coronavirus situation, “While CDC considers this is a very serious public health threat, based on current information, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 to the general American public is considered low at this time.” (Read more about the CDC’s risk assessment here.)

Even if coronavirus spreads in America, Dr. Nachman believes our country has the medical infrastructure to effectively contain the disease. For example, we have the ability to quarantine people with coronavirus—and these isolated individuals can still receive top-notch treatment. Medical facilities are already preparing to handle potential cases. “It's hard to compare patients in U.S. and China,” Dr. Nachman says. “But we need to stop, take a look around, and gauge what happens in America when people get sick.”

Experts agree that parents should focus their worries on another deadly sickness: influenza. The seasonal flu has already sickened about 22 million individuals during the 2019-2020 season. The CDC says 210,000 were hospitalized and 12,000 have died—including 54 children. So when it comes to keeping kids healthy, “let's prevent what we can before worrying about what we can’t,” says Dr. Nachman. 

Do Pregnant Women Need to Worry?

You may have heard the news reports about the two newborns in Wuhan, China, who tested positive for coronavirus. One was merely 30 hours old. Before you panic, though, realize there's no evidence that COVID-19 passes through the placenta. Indeed, preliminary research published in The Lancet found no evidence that coronavirus transfers from mother to fetus during pregnancy.

There's also no evidence that coronavirus affects expecting women more severely. Since pregnancy weakens the immune system, though, you should be extra diligent about the following the precautionary measures outlined below.

How to Prevent Coronavirus

Parents and children can prevent coronavirus the same way they ward off other respiratory illnesses like the flu. The most important thing is getting the flu vaccine and maintaining proper hand hygiene. “Wash your hands appropriately with soap and water as needed, which reduces your risk of picking up germs that cause disease,” says Dr. Wahrman. It’s especially important to wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; Dr. DiCaprio recommends that kids sing "Happy Birthday" to hit the time mark.

Avoid contact with anyone exhibiting signs of illness. If you’re sick, the CDC recommends staying home if possible. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and disinfect your home frequently.

We asked experts to answer a few other prevention questions for parents, and here's what they had to say:

Is there a coronavirus vaccine?

There is currently no vaccine for coronavirus. Medical experts are working on developing one, and they’re also seeing whether an existing vaccine could help with coronavirus, says Dr. DiCaprio. Since COVID-19 is not the same as SARS and SERS, though, experts need to start from scratch. 

“There are a couple of companies working on the vaccine,” says Dr. Wahrman. “Usually a vaccine can take up to or more than a year to develop. It won't be available this season, but if this becomes something of greater concern, then there are people working on it for the future.”

Should my child wear a face mask to prevent catching coronavirus?

If you live in a big city, you might notice people walking around with masks on their faces. These nose- and mouth-covering objects can protect against disease-causing droplets, but they have their limitations. For example, many people don't use them properly, and airborne viruses still come in contact with their nose and mouth. Plus, according to Dr. Wahrman, once a mask becomes wet, it's less effective.

How is America dealing with coronavirus?

WHO, CDC, and state health partners have learned from previous coronavirus outbreaks, and they’re taking every effort to control the disease. “The international community is on top of this outbreak so it doesn't become a true pandemic and harm a lot of people,” says Dr. Wahrman. “Coronavirus is a good example of a successful health response to a potential threat."

According to the CDC, “The goal of the ongoing U.S. public health response is to contain this outbreak and prevent sustained spread of COVID-19 in this country.”  Here are a few steps that have been taken:

  • On February 6, the CDC announced that they began shipping a laboratory test kit that detects COVID-19 to "qualified U.S. and international laboratories," according to a press release. The test gives results in four hours, and the hope is that early detection can help control the disease.
  • On January 27, the CDC advised that all travelers should avoid “non essential travel” to China (Level 3 Travel Health Notice). The State Department also advised Americans not to travel to the country—and recommended that all Americans currently in China leave through commercial transportation.
  • The CDC is screening travelers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan, China
  • Travelers from China receive educational materials about coronavirus
  • Several airports have quarantine stations

China has been taking efforts to maintain coronavirus as well; for example, they've closed transport within and out of the Wuhan area.

What to Do If You Think You Have Coronavirus

If you have respiratory symptoms, chances are you’re suffering from the flu. “If a child is sick with cough, fever, runny nose, and shortness of breath—and you're without any history of travel—coronavirus isn’t a concern," says Dr. DiCaprio. 

But if you’ve visited Wuhan, China, within the last 14 days—or if you’re in close contact with someone who has—you might have coronavirus. According to the CDC, you should contact a healthcare provider and inform them of your travels to Wuhan. They’ll consult with public health department and the CDC, and then they'll decide if you need diagnostic testing for COVID-19. Dr. DiCaprio says the CDC is the only organization with the ability to test for the coronavirus. 

There is currently no recommended treatment regime for the novel coronavirus. Your healthcare provider will inform you on next steps, but the CDC suggests treating the illness similarly to the flu. You should get lots of rest and fluids, take fever-reducing medication, and use a humidifier.


Comments (5)

January 31, 2020
Thanks for the article. An example of why parents should be concerned -- Currently Stony Brook's graduate housing -- Chapin Apartments -- have students from Wuhan in SHARED units. They have not been instructed by the university to isolate themselves nor be tested. Thank goodness some of the students have taken it upon themselves to be socially responsible enough to do it themselves. But the university has made no announcement to the rest of the community of phd students and families living at Chapin of how the university plans to handle such cases and ensure their health and safety. The tenants continue to use the shared laundry, gym, and family room facilities unaware that students either from Wuhan or in close contact with people from Wuhan. Institutions like these are the reason parents worry and do not want to pivot to the flu -- for which we have vaccinated ourselves against.
January 31, 2020
please do not delete my comments to bury the truth.
January 31, 2020
Parents are understandably concerned. While their children may be vaccinated against the flu, they aren't vaccines for the coronavirus. Parents of college students are concerned, especially public state colleges with a large number of students from China and some have a direct pipeline to Wuhan which means an exchange of professors/students w/ Wuhan. Stony Brook Univ. for instance has 5000 students from China, currently 40 are stuck in Wuhan. Univ has only pressured to come back before February 7th instead of quarantine plans.
January 30, 2020
Let us not ignore the fact that we have our children vaccinated against the flu, whereas, with the coronavirus WE DO NOT. Let us think critically. Also, referring to the CDC is too passive. CDC has been very slow to respond and strategic in a way that does not prioritize parents' concerns. For example, university students are forced to sit in 200 plus student classroom, only centimeters apart, and many public institutions have large numbers in students from China. Universities are not proactively checking in on all students who have arrived from Wuhan and leaving this up to the student to appear at the health clinic if symptoms arise. Asymptomatic transmission has occurred -- we have proof of this. So why do the CDC and blindly adhering institutions tell us to only report ourselves and isolate ourselves if and when we experience symptoms? Virus shedding is happening asymptomatically and contagious. Parents who are alarmed are only using their brains and not following flawed reasoning meant to diminish the risks and fears of parents. Don't write condescending articles.
January 30, 2020