How Worried Should We *Really* Be About the Spread of Coronavirus?


Has COVID-19 reached a tipping point? The World Health Organization is reporting that it has spread to 77 countries, and the global total number of cases is more than 93,000. More than 85 percent of those cases are in China, and most of the others are in the Republic of Korea, Italy and Iran.

Of course, Canada is not immune, with 33 cases confirmed here, across three provinces: Ontario, B.C. and Quebec. And there are now at least 125 cases in more than a dozen states in the U.S., with nine deaths at the time this post was published—all of which have occurred in the state of Washington.

The World Health Organization says it’s still possible for the spread of the coronavirus to be contained, and it has not declared the situation a pandemic—yet. But experts agree we are on the cusp of the outbreak becoming one. But what does a pandemic mean, exactly—and how can you prepare for one?

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic refers to the worldwide spread of a disease—but there is no exact threshold for when one is called. Above all, it’s important to remember that a pandemic is mostly about how much a disease has spread—not how deadly the illness is.

“[For a pandemic to be declared], there would have to be ongoing spread in a number of different regions around the globe, and affecting large numbers of people,” says Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a clinical pediatrics professor at University of British Columbia.

The World Health Organization is in charge of declaring when COVID-19 has become a pandemic. Right now, public health agencies in Canada have been able to track the spread of the coronavirus—they know which infected people brought it into the country, and they can isolate those people and the people who live with them. If the spread becomes uncontrolled—infecting large numbers of people without public health agencies being able to track it—across many countries, it will likely be declared a pandemic, and the health care system might switch its focus from containing the virus to slowing its spread.

But that switch doesn’t happen just because a pandemic is declared. Dr. Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, emphasized in a press conference on Tuesday morning that calling the coronavirus a pandemic wouldn’t mean a change in how countries should react. “There’s a very dangerous and I think unhelpful alignment in people’s minds between this pandemic word and some sort of major shift in approach. This is not the case,” he said.

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How dangerous is COVID-19?

For most people, COVID-19 will feel like the cold or flu, and they will get better within six days. You might not even realize you have it. Symptoms include a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, though it can progress into pneumonia.

But COVID-19 is more serious than the cold or the flu because it’s more deadly—while it’s difficult to know exactly how deadly it is, the novel coronavirus has killed a reported 3.4 percent of known cases. The flu kills about 0.1% of people it infects. The elderly and people with other medical issues are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, while children don’t seem to be as affected—a recent study looked at 400 infected kids under 10 and found none died. Being treated early helps increase the chances of recovery.

How can I protect myself?

Though it doesn’t seem to spread as quickly as the flu, the coronavirus spreads in the same way the flu does—through droplets that are shared when infected people cough and sneeze. You can protect yourself using the same measures as you do to prevent the flu: “Wash your hands, stay home from work if you are sick, and reach out if you need more care,” says Murthy.

Make sure you wash your hands correctly, rubbing them together with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use alcohol-based sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol instead.

At home, disinfect surfaces that people regularly touch, like toilets, bedside tables, doorknobs, toys, phones and TV remotes. (You can mix one part bleach with nine parts water to disinfect surfaces.) Consider skipping handshakes and hugs when you greet people.

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If the WHO does declare a pandemic, what will change?

“It’s the same levels of preparedness and threat response as before,” says Murthy. Right now, Canada is focused on catching all the cases and educating the public about the disease.

To prepare in case the coronavirus becomes widespread, stock up on supplies so that you don’t need to leave the house if someone is sick.

That includes filling your pantry with non-perishable foods like pasta and soup, buying frozen meals and vegetables, and getting extra toilet paper, tissue paper, feminine hygiene products, laundry detergent and dishwasher detergent, garbage bags, and diapers or formula if you have young kids. It might also include getting refills on regular prescriptions—so you can avoid the pharmacy—or buying extra pet food.

You will also need additional supplies to take care of the person who is sick. That includes soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, paper towels, medication for fevers, and disinfecting cleaner or bleach, to disinfect surfaces.

If more cases emerge and the virus begins to spread more quickly, provincial health-care systems could recommend staying home from work or closing schools in affected areas. And if it increases even further, festivals, sports events, and other large-scale gatherings might be cancelled.

If COVID-19 becomes more common, you might want to avoid crowds by changing your commute time, working from home, or changing when you go grocery shopping or to the pharmacy to less busy times of day.

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How far are we from a vaccine?

“There’s a great deal of effort being spent on developing a vaccine, but it’s probably a good period away—probably another year or so,” says Murthy. Antivirals, which might help lower the death rate from the coronavirus, are being tested to see if specific types are effective against the disease, and might be available sooner.

Should I cancel my travel plans?

“It’s region-specific,” says Murthy. “Going across Canada seems to be more than safe right now. Around the world, there are other patches [of outbreaks]. Those places would be lower on my list.” There are travel advisories updated in real time at Right now, the government is advising Canadians avoid non-essential travel to China and all travel to the Chinese province of Hubei.

It is also now recommending Canadians avoid non-essential travel to Iran, northern Italy and some regions of South Korea.

Even if your destination isn’t in a high-risk area, Murthy recommends asking yourself a few questions: “Do you have travel insurance, will it cover you; are you willing to risk being quarantined for a period of time after you come back?” he says.

Finally, if you have travelled and have COVID-19 symptoms within 14 days of your return, call public health in your area and ask them what to do (the numbers are found here.)

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