The new coronavirus: Answers to your questions

A map of cases of the novel coronavirus
The HealthMap app is tracking the new coronavirus in real time

If you’ve been watching the news, you’re probably aware that there are thousands of confirmed cases of a new type of coronavirus in China that has sickened thousands and caused more than 200 deaths. Although there have only been a handful of cases in the United States, many people have questions about the new virus and how to keep themselves and their families safe.

To answer those questions, we sat down with Dr. Thomas Sandora from the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause infections in animals or people. There are several common human coronaviruses that usually cause mild to moderate upper respiratory infection, like a common cold.

How is this coronavirus unique?

Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve and infect people, and then spread between people. This was seen previously with SARS-CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus) and MERS-CoV (middle eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus). The current outbreak that began in China is another novel coronavirus, called 2019-nCoV, which likely jumped from animals to humans.

Why is it spreading so fast?

When a new virus is first introduced into a human population that has never seen it before, we do not have any pre-existing immunity. How fast a virus can spread depends on a variety of factors. Although person-to-person transmission of this novel coronavirus is happening, it’s still too soon to really understand how well it will spread among people.

HealthMap: Tracking 2019-nCoV in real time
The Boston Children’s Hospital Informatics Program created HealthMap, an online resource and smart phone app that helps track the spread of contagious diseases in real time, including 2019-nCoV.

What are the signs and symptoms of this coronavirus?

For confirmed 2019-nCoV infections, reported illnesses have ranged from people being mildly sick to people being severely ill and dying. Symptoms can include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • shortness of breath

How can I protect my family?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent 2019-nCoV infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, there are some everyday preventive actions you can take to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

What precautions do we need to take when traveling?

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China, where the majority of the cases have occurred.

Learn more about the Division of Infectious Diseases.

About our expert: Thomas Sandora, MD, MPH, is a senior associate physician in pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases, hospital epidemiologist, and medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

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