By now, everyone has heard of COVID-19, or more commonly known as the coronavirus. Flights are being canceled, along with schools, businesses, weddings, and even Broadway shows. Some governments are encouraging their citizens to stay home whenever possible; others are enforcing mass quarantines. Face masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper (for some reason) are cleared from store shelves as people stockpile to prepare themselves for the worst. The 20-second hand washing technique is being promoted by health authorities and is all over social media.
However, what is the coronavirus exactly? Is it nothing more than the bad flu (unfortunately, it’s worse)? How is it possible for some people to test positive to the illness without any physical impairments while other cases prove fatal?
The 2020 Pandemic
A pandemic is defined as a disease that spreads over a whole country or the entire world. With borders closing and countries going on lockdown, we can definitely say the latter is the case.
The coronavirus can affect people differently depending on their age, any underlying conditions, and the dose of the virus they’re exposed to.
Take Connor Reed for example. He came down with COVID-19 during its initial outbreak in Wuhan, China. He lives a 20-minute walk from the market where many experts believe the strain had first affected people. Reed assumed he had just a head cold. A week later, he began feeling better until he was hit with a fever and cough. His body began aching. After another week, he thought he was recovering once again until the cough worsened.
“It was hard to breathe,” says Reed. “Even walking to the bathroom, I felt like I was running out of air. My ears hurt from it; I lost my balance at times. It started to get scary, like the worst flu I’ve ever had.”
He went to the hospital and was told he had “a new kind of pneumonia.” He was healthy originally so there wasn’t much concern for fatal consequences from his disease. Steroid inhalers helped lower the inflammation in his lungs. After a full month of being sick, Reed made a full recovery. By then, the coronavirus had begun to be featured in headlines worldwide, and Reed may have been one of the earliest victims.
How Does the Coronavirus Affect the Body?
The virus, of course, is invisible to the naked eye but those affected can share it, usually through sneezing or coughing, sending droplets into the air. These droplets can then land on various surfaces where the virus can stay viable for days. Then the virus enters the host usually through the mouth, nose, or eyes, often from touching these parts of the body.
There are four common strains of human coronavirus:
- 229E (alpha coronavirus)
- NL63 (alpha coronavirus)
- OC43 (beta coronavirus)
- HKU1 (beta coronavirus)
How Do Doctors Test for the Coronavirus?
Swabs or direct samples from the nose, throat, or lung phlegm can indicate the presence of the virus, as well as certain blood tests. Blood tests can be imperative since swabs can return negative while the virus is duplicating itself in the lower lungs.
Professor Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity says, “Early on, you had doctors in China diagnosing just off chest scans because you can see that lung inflammation, even if it’s not severe.”
However, infectious disease physician and microbiologist Professor Peter Collignon says it’s not clear yet if everyone gets the coronavirus in their lungs. “Finding it down there isn’t a tipping point [for severity] by any means. Some children have it in their lungs but display no symptoms. But it might not have traveled all the way down from the upper respiratory area in every case.”
What are the Symptoms of the Coronavirus?
Much of the knowledge found on this virus is from studies on the initial 55,000 cases in China, where about 80% of those affected were able to fight off the disease, even those who developed pneumonia. Some people dubbed their experiences as “three weeks in hell” as they struggled to breathe, while some had a small cough and a sore throat, while others had no symptoms at all.
Based on the data from China, the main symptoms include:
- Fever (88% of patients)
- Cough (68%)
- Fatigue (38%)
- Shortness of breath (19%)
Other symptoms may be chills, a sore throat, headaches, diarrhea, and nausea. Less than 5% of cases include a blocked nose.
According to Professor Collignon, patients tend to have mild symptoms in the first week or so. Some severe cases can turn into pneumonia during the second week. In the rarest cases, the disease can become deadly. The assistant director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) Bruce Aylward advises people who have the virus or suspect they might monitor their symptoms closely, particularly their fevers and breathing.
As the immune system fights back against the disease, blood vessels can begin to leak, flooding the lungs with cellular debris. This makes it harder for the lungs to function adequately, and it’s at this point that the patient struggles to breathe. Lower oxygen levels can put pressure on the heart, lowering blood pressure to dangerous levels.
“Even if the virus spreads to the heart or the kidneys and damages them, the real cause of death is still probably going to be oxygen levels falling and setting everything else off,” Professor Collignon says. “If you’re an older person or already unwell and those organs are weaker, it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Co-infection, being infected by two bugs at once, can also be the reason for coronavirus fatality.
Who is at Risk for Serious Complications from the Coronavirus?
WHO reports that about 20% of all corona cases become severe with depleting oxygen levels. Of that percent, 6% went into critical care as organs began to fail or septic shock began. About 3.4% of these had died. However, Professor Collignon assumes the real death rate is much lower since many mild cases go under the radar.
Very few children have suffered from this disease, while older people and those with heart disease and diabetes have the highest risk of experiencing fatal complications. Smokers are also at a higher risk.
Remember that the dosage of the virus someone comes into contact with can affect how complicated their case may become. This could be why some young and healthy medical workers have died while treating patients with coronavirus.
How Do Doctors Treat the Coronavirus?
Unfortunately, a vaccine for COVID-19 is about a year away from being ready. In the meantime, treatment is focused on managing complications, like providing oxygen, ensuring the body has enough fluids and monitoring the symptoms. Antibiotics won’t work against this disease since it’s not caused by bacteria, but they may be used to prevent or treat secondary infections.
To slow the spread of the disease and hopefully lower the stress on already overworked healthcare systems, containment measures like social distancing and self-isolation are being put into place.
In Wuhan, Reed’s quarantine ended weeks ago but he has been living under lockdown since January along with the tens of millions of residents in China.
“I’m likely immune now, I feel fine. But it’s a ghost town here. I can’t work, no one can. I’m stuck.”