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Coronavirus Freak Out: Is It Justified or Overblown?

Coronavirus is capturing headlines. The World Health Organization just declared it a global health emergency. Is the coronavirus freak out justified?
Coronavirus Freak Out: Is It Justified or Overblown?
Closeup of a sick Chinese woman wearing a face mask and reading a digital thermometer.

The headlines have been relentless. Coronavirus continues to dominate health news around the world. There is an international coronavirus freak out. Face masks, including those purchased in pharmacies or hardware stores, have been selling out. How worried should you be?

In our last newsletter I asked:

Should You Take Antiviral Drugs If You Catch the Flu?
Are you worried about the coronavirus? The headlines are scary. But what about influenza? You are far more likely to catch the flu this season. What to do?

I pointed out that as of last week the CDC was estimating that 15 million people in the U.S. had come down with influenza, 140,000 had been hospitalized and 8,200 people had died from the flu.

When that was written on January 27, 2020, the number of cases of coronavirus reported in China was under 3,000 and deaths were below 100. So, three days ago it seemed as if this epidemic was not that bad. A lot has changed in three days, though.

Coronavirus Freak Out Data:

At the time of this writing (January 30, 2020) the official count from China is over 8,200 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 200 deaths. That might not seem that grave, but how accurate are these numbers?

Northeastern University hosts the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-technical Systems (MOBS Lab). These experts estimate that as of Jan. 29, 2020, there may actually be as many as 31,200 infections in the “Wuhan catchment area.” That is the median number they came up with. The range could be anywhere from 23,400 to 40,400 people infected.

Hubei province in China, the area that has been hardest hit, contains 60 million people. The city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, has 11 million people. This municipality has been locked down for almost a week. There are no buses, trains or domestic airplanes leaving the city. Roads are blocked so people cannot flee. There is no public transportation within the city and people are not allowed to drive cars or other vehicles. Streets are empty. Hospitals are overwhelmed and there are food shortages.

Imagine if something like this happened to New York City with a population of “only” 8.7 million people. If there were an effort to lock down NYC because of a coronavirus freak out, the world would change. Financial systems would likely end up in free fall. New Yorkers, not renowned for their civility, might not be as compliant as the people in Wuhan. But please do not get us wrong. We are not predicting that NYC will be hit with the coronavirus.

What Does the Future Hold for Coronavirus?

The short answer is, no one knows. Clearly, coronavirus is spreading fast in China. Some researchers project that each person who is infected with this virus will spread it to at least two other people. Roughly one fifth of those who come down with coronavirus get really ill, often with pneumonia

That could mean a lot of people in China could become very sick over the next several weeks. It is projected that roughly two to three percent of infected individuals die from this disease. If some dire projections come true, deaths there could accelerate over the coming weeks.

What About the Rest of the World?

Some experts say coronavirus won’t be that big a deal. They maintain that the coronavirus freak out is being driven by the media and the disease is just not that scary.

We’re not so sure. The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has declared this epidemic a global health emergency. The disease has already spread to 18 other countries, including the United States. For the most part, though, the number of cases outside of China is small. As far as we can tell, there have been no fatalities in other countries. Whether the epidemic can be contained will be revealed over the next several weeks.

In the meantime, Americans have more to worry about from the flu than the coronavirus. Here is our recent post about antiviral medications for influenza. Fortunately, we do have a number of drugs that help reduce the severity of the flu. 

What is your reaction to the coronavirus reporting? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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