COVID 19: A Microbiologist on a Soap Box

I’ve had quite a flood of questions coming at me from friends, family, and others these past few weeks about what is happening with this new emerging virus- wanting a microbiologist’s perspective.

So, while this is not in line with our usual content, I felt the need to share some things here, if not just to help get the information out.

Before I go any further I want to be perfectly clear, I am not a medical doctor, nor am I an epidemiologists or a virologist. What follows is my personal perspective on what information I’ve encountered and can share with the public, as I try and translate into layman’s terms for everyone to understand. Nothing presented here is intended to be taken as instruction or medical advice.

What is COVID 19?

Covid 19, or Corona-Virus Disease 2019, is a disease caused by a newly mutated strain of coronavirus (the Virus is being called SARS-CoV-2) that recently jumped from a different species into humans (presumably from bats). Corona viruses are fairly common viruses: they are also fairly simplistic viruses and are made of an envelope that encases single stranded RNA. Outside the envelope are club shaped projections that allow the virus to interact with our cells. If the projections are compatible, then the cell lets them in and the RNA is translated by our own cell’s equipment to manufacture more viruses.

Just to clarify so I don’t lose anyone later. The disease is called COVID 19, the virus that causes the disease is called SARS-CoV-2.

Is it Airborne?

No, it is not believed to be air-borne, however, the virus can be transferred without touch through micro-droplets, so keep about six feet (2 meters) between you and other people.

It is more likely to be transferred through touch. It has been observed to survive for a few hours in aerosols and on copper, one day on cardboard, and as long as three days on plastics and stainless steel.

So avoid touching any surface that others may have touched as much as you can, and wash your hands often. Hand sanitizer is moderately effective, but proper hand washing is far superior.

Is COVID 19 Just Like the Flu?

The short answer is no. Seasonal influenza is a very different beast, and is plenty dangerous in its own way. But, we have community immunity (that’s fun to say) to the seasonal flu.

Meaning that, not only are many people currently vaccinated against the seasonal flu, but many have also had previous exposure to flu in the past: whether by vaccination, illness, or contact. So, even though the flu changes its clothes every season, these pockets of immunity within our communities are what protect us.

This is what prevents the seasonal flu from doing what COVID 19 is currently doing- this rapid exponential spread across the globe.

So without any immunity at all, there is a very real potential for SARS-CoV-2 to infect the majority of the population of any community that it enters. Possibly as much as 70% of the population, even using preventative measures, such as self-imposed quarantines.

This should scare us all– not panic us, we are not in a hopeless situation– however, it is scary, and that’s okay. We are allowed to be scared. Pretending to not be right now, just makes you seem a little dumb- sorry to be blunt, but really, no one’s impressed.

It is important for us to all remain calm, collected, and do our part to help each other through these coming trials. It is, unfortunately, likely to get much worse before it gets better.

Is it Really all that Deadly?

Absolutely. Using Worldometer to get an estimate of the current situation: these numbers are fairly accurate, and publicly available statistics. Right now there are 336838 reported cases of COVID 19, and 14616 deaths. This calculates to 4.3%, this is approximately 30 times higher than annual deaths from the seasonal flu.

To dig a little deeper into the numbers, this is an ongoing pandemic, many of those reported cases are still currently ill. If we analyze only the resolved cases, either recovered or died, then the current numbers are 112252 resolved cases, 97636 recovered and 14616 that have died: this is nearly 15% of resolved cases that have resulted in death. This is not the mortality rate, which is better estimated in our first calculation, but is this a very humbling number.

In the United States, there are right now 33546 reported cases, and 419 deaths- or 1.2%. A much lower death rate than the global rate at only about 10 times more deadly than the seasonal flu.

The United States hasn’t hit critical levels yet, but we are very much trending to do so. As of today, New York is on the brink of a very tragic tipping point.

To put that 1.2% into perspective, the U.S. population is about 330,467,650. If 70% of the population becomes infected that’s around 231,327,355 people. At 1.2% death rate, that would be 2.8 million deaths. If we do nothing and let this thing take its course, this is what we would be looking at or worse. Fortunately, we’re already taking some action against this.

But Isn’t 95% Recovery Rate a Good Thing?

So, here is why COVID 19 is such a threat.

New virus means no immunity, no immunity means large numbers becoming infected in rapid succession, which leads to large numbers becoming very ill all at the same time, which in turn fills all available hospital beds and exhausts all personal protective equipment, leaving all of our nurses, doctors, and lab techs vulnerable to infection (from anything, not just SARS-CoV-2).

As much as we are trying to “flatten the curve” here, there has been too much resistance from those who do not believe the risk is real. The number of cases continue on a steep rise.

Once the beds are filled, this isn’t going to be just a death rate from COVID 19 any more. Anyone with an emergency, whether it be a heart attack, a car accident, a preeclampsia pregnancy, severe burns, physical trauma, or, you know, the seasonal flu, will not have a bed available, and will not get the treatment that they need.

This is when this pandemic event, more so than just this disease, is going to become unbearably tragic. We’ve seen it already in Italy, and there’s no reason to assume that much the same couldn’t happen elsewhere.

This needs to be taken seriously.

Treatments or Warm Weather?

There are some antivirals and combinations that have shown some promise, and hopefully as these successes are shared, we will see a decreasing death rate. These do take time to make it through approval though, because we need to make sure that we aren’t going to kill more people with treatment than the disease.

There is also work being done on a potential vaccine, but this is a long process- once again, to make sure it isn’t going to kill everyone that gets the vaccination. Some things just can’t be rushed, so we are planning on 18 more months at the moment.

As for warmer weather killing SAR-CoV-2? We all really hope so, that would be AWESOME! But it’s a novel virus, no one knows, and we can’t count on that potential. Too much is at risk, and we need to be prepared for an 18 month trek, but don’t let that stop you from praying for some healing spring graces.

And then, even if the warmer weather kills it back, if it’s not eradicated by fall, it would re-surge again. So we still must do all that we can to slow down it’s spread.

What can We Do?

Assume everyone might be infected, it has a long incubation period where those infected do not show symptoms but are still contagious. Do not travel. Do not gather in groups. Do not touch your face. Wash your hands often. Practice social distancing. All of these practices will help slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Self-quarantine. Even if your region has not received a shelter-in-place order, do so. Stay at home unless absolutely necessary. This is the greatest way that we can combat the spread.

This is especially difficult for the younger people it seems.

We have two teenagers at home. The 19 year old understands and is settling in to doing her college work online, and keeping up with friends via phone and internet. The 16 year old seems to think we are personally attacking her, and simply does not understand.

Yes, it’s difficult. Use these times to get projects done around the house. Spend more family time by doing activities you might not usually do. Sit and read a book aloud, video chat with extended family, call grandma (but really, you should already be regularly calling grandma).

Introducing structured time throughout the days will help immensely with the cabin fever.

As for helping your community in need. There are those of us in a position to do that, and we absolutely should. Just be careful, know the risks, and do your best not to continue the spread while helping others in need. If your local government has enlisted help from the national guard or professional organizations, then let them do their job and stay home if you are asked to do so.

Some of us have to keep working through this to keep the world running. My wife and I both have positions that are considered essential, and have to be diligent about doing our part to be careful while out in the world right now. I sincerely hope that everyone else does their part too.

I do hope that this isn’t perceived as fear-mongering. This is not my intention. As I stated above, now is not the time for panic. Stop buying all of the toilet paper, seriously, that’s just weird. If you’re going to be a dragon, “Hoarder of Toilet Paper” is not a great title.

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