Staying healthy and safe as coronavirus, panic spread

Panic without borders: As the novel coronavirus spreads around the globe, worry follows. (Photo: Getty Images)
By ROBERT GLATTER //

As anxiety intensifies, ditch the mad dash for a coronavirus mask, wash your hands regularly and stay home if you get sick.

The novel coronavirus is top-of-mind for many New Yorkers, as 13 cases have been confirmed in the state (as of March 5) and the total number of cases in the nation surpassed 100 this week. But while the global outbreak may make you feel overwhelmed and in danger, it’s important to remember that the risk to the average American remains low, and the vast majority of cases are mild and do not require hospitalization.

As of March 5, there were 94,000 confirmed cases and 3,200 deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, a respiratory illness in the same family of viruses as the common cold, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Compare that to the seasonal flu, which has resulted in an estimated 16,000 deaths in the United States since last October, and you have a general idea of the coronavirus’ true impact.

And we will get an even clearer picture in the coming days and weeks as testing for COVID-19 in the United States ramps up. Within a week, labs outside of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be able to conduct the COVID-19 tests, once appropriately validated. This expanded testing capability is expected to reveal many more confirmed cases.

Robert Glatter: Common cold-level common sense.

As we get more data, we understand more about this virus. For example, we know the symptoms are similar to the flu. And much like the flu, there are simple measures everyone can take to protect themselves.

For one, use good hand hygiene (and etiquette). The best way for the public to protect themselves from COVID-19 is to practice effective hand hygiene. That starts with washing your hands thoroughly with hot water and soap for 20 seconds – about the same amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

It is the duration and mechanical scrubbing that is most critical. Not near a sink? Hand sanitizer is a good alternative.

You should also cough and sneeze into the bend of your elbow; avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes (coronavirus enters through mucus membranes); avoid handshakes; wipe surfaces you touch regularly (use an ethanol, hydrogen-peroxide or bleach-based cleaner); and avoid sick people (six feet is the range of droplet transmission from coughs and sneezes).

Also, don’t buy facemasks. You see it every day: commuters, coworkers, friends and family donning facemasks in an effort to protect themselves. But facemasks are not for healthy people.

They are designed to trap large particles and contaminants and healthcare providers give them to patients who present with flu-like symptoms and to anyone who has recently traveled to an area where COVID-19 is prevalent. The idea is to effectively lower the chance that a potentially infected individual can transmit to others through secretions, such as phlegm or saliva.

Face the truth: This is not helping.

There are two common types of facemasks – surgical masks and N95 respirators. Surgical masks, as described above, keep large particles and droplets from leaving an individual’s mouth. The respirators can filter out most airborne particles below 0.3 microns in diameter, but they require fit-testing by a trained technician to ensure no leakage occurs.

And even if someone gets a proper fit, the coronavirus is .12 microns in diameter, and may still leave the wearer exposed.

The bottom line is: If you’re healthy, facemasks are not an effective way of protecting yourself from COVID-19, unless you’re caring for someone who has or is suspected of having contracted the new virus.

Meanwhile, if you are sick, stay home. If you develop symptoms such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention (and call in advance, to help prevent the spread of illness). If you are not experiencing severe symptoms, avoid hospital emergency departments, which are extremely busy this time of year.

If you do test positive for COVID-19 but have no symptoms, you may need to “self-quarantine” at the direction of a healthcare provider (in contrast, “self-isolation” is intended for people who are already ill).

Put simply, this means staying home for the duration of the incubation period, which is 14 days, and monitoring yourself for any signs of the virus – coughing, fever, chills or muscle aches. Remember, the first step is calling your primary physician or other healthcare provider.

COVID-19 is a new virus and no one has immunity. But, it’s not time to panic. Instead, take the proper precautions and stay informed.

Robert Glatter is a board-certified emergency-medicine specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, an assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and a frequent Forbes contributor.