Don’t Panic! Do Wash Your Hands!

Chances are, you’re freaking out about COVID-19. In the past month, the general public has been hit with swaths of information regarding the disease and its inevitable spread across the United States. We’ve entered a new stage of international disease concern, one which is no longer concerned with containment and instead with reducing the number of cases in countries outside of China. While everyone around you seems to be panicking, what should you do? Panic too? Buy the last four bottles of Purell at CVS even though the woman behind you also wants some? When will we be able to return to campus, if ever? Should you pack up all your stuff and fly home? First, let’s lay down some basic facts and then talk about what they mean for you and Amherst College.

Coronaviruses fall in a family of viruses named for spikes protruding from their spherical bodies, which look like crowns under an electron microscope. Four of these viruses cause the common cold, and you’ve probably been infected with them many times. Two others are among the most frightening viruses we know of — SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Both appeared as epidemics in the early 2000s, but they were different from the novel coronavirus — SARS-CoV-2 (which causes the disease known as COVID-19) — in two ways. Patients infected with SARS and MERS were symptomatic shortly after being infected and symptoms were usually severe. This allowed officials to quickly identify and quarantine ill patients. In both cases, the mortality rate was significantly higher than what has been observed for COVID-19 (19 stands for 2019, the year the disease was first observed). Around 10 percent of infected patients succumbed to SARS while just under 35 percent of those infected died of MERS. The alarmingly high fatality rate of MERS morbidly helped to slow the spread of disease. A virus which kills a large portion of those it infects has more difficulty spreading from host to host and is more easily contained. 

COVID-19 is different. Firstly, it seems that some infected individuals can be asymptomatic. Others exhibit relatively mild flu-like symptoms (even still, if you’ve had the flu recently, you’ll know it can be quite unpleasant). This makes identifying patients with COVID-19 a difficult task. It also means that asymptomatic individuals might unwittingly transmit the virus to vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or those with preexisting medical conditions.

 Given that we’re beyond any hope of containing COVID-19, what are the next steps to reduce the spread of disease? 

Our first line of defense is testing — figuring out who has the disease and who does not. Due to problems in developing the test and restrictions by the CDC and FDA on which labs can test for the virus, the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in identifying the infected.

At the time of this writing, the CDC reports 647 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. This number is likely a drastic underestimate, and in fact, is probably off by several orders of magnitude. A recent publication by Volz et al. estimates the doubling time (the length of time required for the number of cases in a population to double) at about seven days. They also estimate the basic reproduction number (the number of people to whom a single infected individual transmits the virus) to be 2.15. As a comparison, the influenza strain H1N1 (also known as the swine flu) which caused the most recent pandemic in 2009 had a basic reproduction number of about 1.4-1.6, according to Coburn et al. However, these numbers depend greatly on the modelling used to derive them and should be taken with a grain of salt.

 Now that the college has decided to move to remote learning, the question over what the virus means for Amherst students has been partially resolved. Of course, much still remains to be seen about the nuances of remote learning and the many travel implications for our diverse and international student body, on top of the looming concerns that remain for everyone around the globe about the virus’s bodily impacts and harms. What should you be worried about now that you’re probably heading home? 

First, wash your hands. Did you hear that? Wash your hands, then wash them again. SARS-CoV-2 has a membrane on the outside of the virus that’s highly susceptible to detergents, so hand washing is preferable to alcohol-based hand sanitizers when available. Your mouth, nose, ears and eyes are weak spots in your immune system, so keep your hands away from your face. If you must touch your face, wash your hands and use a tissue. 

Our actions over the next several weeks will determine the outcome of this viral epidemic in the U.S. which will be remembered in perpetuity. The aim of governmental and institutional responses at the moment is to decrease the number of infections and the rate at which they occur so as not to overwhelm the capacities of our healthcare system. While the virus will continue to spread throughout the United States and likely infect millions, we can maximize the effectiveness of our response through basic social distancing and personal hygiene measures — like washing your hands (!).