ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) -- With tens of thousands of confirmed cases and the death toll climbing every day, fear of the novel coronavirus is spreading just as quickly.
The virus, now officially named COVID-19, originated in Wuhan, China in December, and has since shut down cities in China and caused multiple airlines to cancel flights to and from the region.
As of Feb. 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported there are 15 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, with the center noting that the number will likely climb, including among people who recently traveled to Wuhan. There have been no confirmed cases in Minnesota at this time, according to the state Department of Health.
The Associated Press has reported that China alone has seen more than 59,000 cases of the virus and more than 1,000 deaths.
According to Dr. Gregory Poland, the director of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, the virus is comparable to the 2002 SARS outbreak in China, which also jumped a species barrier to infect humans. However, Poland also said SARS had a far higher rate of fatality. He said the novel coronavirus is reproduced at about the same rate as SARS: for every one person infected, three more would then catch it.
The CDC said symptoms of the illness have ranged from mild to severe and include fever, shortness of breath and cough.
One unique aspect of the novel coronavirus, Dr. Poland said, is most of the people infected have been older adults.
“A curious thing is that we have not been getting reports of large-scale disease in children,” he said “No one particularly knows why that is.”
That said, Poland said the risk to Americans is low at this time.
“Statistically, the odds of getting the disease [in the U.S.] are incalculably low,” he said “If you’ve been around someone who's been to China or your spouse is infected, that’s a different story.”
Still, Poland said no one knows what’s going to happen yet. While some have speculated that the virus will peter out, others believe it’s just gaining steam.
Poland said the greater risk to Americans at this time is the flu. As of Feb 8, the CDC estimates there have been more than 26 million flu illnesses in the U.S. this season, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths.
“What people are dying of in U.S. is influenza, and we have a vaccine that’s safe and relatively effective," he said. "And people aren’t getting it.”
Poland said the current flu shot does work at preventing the H1N1 strain and is about 50 percent effective at preventing the B strain. Like seat belts in a car, Poland added, it isn’t 100 percent effective at preventing deaths, but it does decrease the risk.
Dr. Poland added that he has seen many myths swirling about the novel coronavirus.
“You can’t get it from your dog or cat,” he said. “It is not being spread by Corona beer. No, you should absolutely not drink bleach in any dilution.” Poland also said surgical masks will not protect people from aerosolized coronavirus, but it can help prevent people from touching their face which can lead to infection.
Good hygiene practices are also an effective method at preventing infection.
“What really works well is respiratory etiquette, social distancing and strict hand-washing before you touch your face and eat,” Poland said, adding that those practices were enough to stop the SARS outbreak.
Poland said he believes the CDC has been prepared for this outbreak and that's the reason the U.S. has not seen widespread outbreaks despite the high volume of air traffic coming in and out of the country.
“This is serious business,” Poland said. “Lives are at risk. The economy is at risk. I’m very thankful for the level of preparedness in the U.S. I’d like to see that preparedness in all countries, because every country is at risk.”
The La Crosse County Health Department said that there while there is one case of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, there are no cases in La Crosse County.
Director Jen Rombalski said the risk to area residents is considered low at this time.