COVID-19: The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan China has caused panic as it spreads rapidly around that county. Neighboring Korea has seen the greatest number of cases outside of China (and on 3 March 2020, the number of new cases in Korea exceeded that in China). The rapid spreading virus has caused panic in many communities. Let's put the risk into perspective!
The globe has seen several coronavirus outbreaks (SARS, MERS, H1N1) and the garden variety flu afflicts millions yearly. To put COVID-19 in perspective, according to a recent ABC News report, between Nov 2002 and July 2003, there were 8000 reported cases of SARS with a fatality rate of nearly 10%. MERS originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and over 2500 cases were reported with a fatality rate of 34%. According to the CDC, in the first year of the H1N1 (subtype of Influenza A) pandemic (2009 to 2010) 151,000-575,000 people succumbed worldwide, 12,400 in the United States. When looking at the ordinary, common, garden variety flu, the CDC estimates that in the United States alone, there have been between 18,000 and 46,000 flu deaths so far this season (beginning in September 2019) out of nearly 20 million cases, a death rate of 0.1%.
The COVID-19 virus seems scary as it is highly infectious (though far less deadly than cousins SARS and MERS. It is early days since the first case was reported in Wuhan on 31 December 2019. While it spreads rapidly, the severity and fatality rates appear to be comparably low. Reliable statistics are not available as yet (it is simply too soon to track reliable trends) but COVID-19 mortality rate globally appears to be around 3.4%. Like other coronaviruses (but unlike H1N1), fatalities are concentrated among the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
Nevertheless, extra care should be exercised. Avoid people who are coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water frequently, especially when you have been out in public. Try to avoid places with large crowds. Wear a mask. (The mask may block viruses but more importantly, it limits the number of times that you touch your hands to your own face, the most common method of contracting the virus.) If you have a fever, cough, or sneeze, go immediately to a medical facility for testing. Be sure to cover your mouth when you sneeze (you should do this anyway!). If you feel ill, stay at home and isolate yourself.
Korea's Response to COVID-19
Korea has the second highest number of cases but at least some of this is a statistical anomaly. Korea is currently testing 15,000 people per day, the highest number in the world. As 10 March, 210,144 had been tested, 87.6% tested negative and an additional 8.8% awaiting results. Less than 3.6% of those tested have proven positive for the disease and deaths stood at 54 (mostly those with pre-existing conditions) or less than 1%. The reason that Korea has such a high number of cases is that more have been tested than anywhere else in the world.
Korea's rapid testing (results back in less than 4 hours), advanced medical infrastructure and universal health insurance have all contributed to the outstanding management of the disease. Korea has been lauded internationally for its handling of the crisis. Furthermore, the high level of information and transparency have set Korea apart from other countries. Public alerts as to the location of new cases are sent to all citizens via mobile phone multiple times per day. There are Apps that track the locations that known carriers have been. Korea's novel 'drive through' testing service has made testing available to all who want it in a safe environment. Korea's national health insurance makes testing and treatment affordable to all. With all the required systems in place, limited population, isolated geography, and national determination to overcome the crisis, if Korea is unable to contain the virus, this is likely to grow into a true pandemic.
World Reactions to Korea's Testing:
Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare Infection Rate Tracker
An English version can be found here:
Terrific Johns Hopkins site tracking the virus.
WHO Dr. Aylward describes China's efforts regarding COVID-19