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Tip Sheet: Putting the news about coronavirus in context with expert insight

January 30, 2020   /   by Michelle Thompson

A search for the term coronavirus reveals more than 500 million results from a wide range of sources, making it difficult for most people to interpret, understand, and take practical steps. No one is an expert on the new coronavirus yet -- it is too new -- but experts in how infectious diseases spread, such as epidemiologists, are vital sources for helping educate the public with facts on the coronavirus disease, how agencies are responding to the current outbreak, and lessons learned from previous infectious disease events.  While putting the current risk of contracting coronavirus in perspective, experts can also provide simple preventive tips for staying healthy.

Dr. Kathryn Jacobsen 

Kathryn H. Jacobsen, MPH, PhD, is a professor specializing in global health epidemiology. Her research focuses on health transitions, the shifts in public health priorities that occur as a result of socioeconomic, environmental, and other changes. She has published research on numerous emerging infectious disease events, including outbreaks of chikungunya, Ebola, and Zika.  Dr. Jacobsen helps to provide context and clarity about what we hear in the news each day. 

The term "public health emergency of international concern” is frequently reported. What does it mean?  

“When something is declared to be a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ (PHEIC), that is a resource designation more than a definition of how serious or concerning an outbreak is. When the World Health Organization (WHO) made the initial decision not to declare the coronavirus outbreak in China to be a PHEIC, that did not mean that the global community was not concerned about the situation or was not willing to partner with China to contain the virus.  
 
The WHO is working with national public health agencies all over the globe to track the growing number of cases and fatalities and share other types of scientific information. WHO will regularly revisit the decision about whether declaring coronavirus to be a PHEIC will facilitate intensified collaborative efforts to prevent and control the spread of coronavirus disease, especially if locally-acquired cases begin occurring in several countries. 

What have epidemiologists learned from previous infectious disease outbreaks?  

The tools that are available for public health prevention are stronger because of what we’ve learned from SARS, influenza, and other infectious disease outbreaks. The Chinese government learned a lot from SARS about how to track and isolate cases, quarantine contacts, and communicate with the world about large-scale emerging infectious diseases events. It will take time to understand some of the unique characteristics of the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, but for now public health officials are working on the assumption that the novel coronavirus is similar to SARS, and a similar set of prevention and control measures will be useful for containing the outbreak. 

What key pieces of information are public health officials watching most closely as they seek to predict the future impact of the virus?  
 
At this stage, public health officials are watching two key numbers: the total number of cases and the total number of fatalities. As of late January, several thousand cases have been confirmed, mostly in China. The number of fatalities is increasing, too, but at a slower rate than the number of cases. This suggests the case fatality rate from the Wuhan coronavirus may be lower than SARS, but the virus might be more contagious than the SARS virus. Keeping tabs on these numbers will help public health officials design and implement evidence-based preparedness and response plans.” 

Dr. Jacobsen can be reached at kjacobse@gmu.edu. For more information, contact Michelle Thompson, Director of Marking and Communications in Mason’s College of Health and Human Services at 703-993-3485 or mthomp7@gmu.edu

Dr. Amira Roess 

Dr. Amira RoessWhat is the risk of coronavirus in the United States, and what common sense actions can people take to protect themselves? 
 
Amira Roess, PhD, MPH is a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University's College of Health and Human Services. She is an epidemiologist with expertise in infectious diseases epidemiology, multi-disciplinary and multi-species field research and evaluating interventions to reduce the transmission and impact of infectious diseases. 
 
Dr. Roess reminds people in the United States to consider their risk of coronavirus in perspective and that there are common sense preventive measures they can take to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses. 

How can we put the risk of coronavirus to Americans in perspective? 

"Our risk for coronavirus here in the United States has increased during the month of March 2020. Americans are urged to practice social distancing, which means limiting their contact with other individuals to no less than than six feet. By doing so, we can reduce our individual risk of getting this virus and we can reduce the risk of us inadvertently spreading the virus to individuals with weakened immune systems or underlying conditions."

What are some common sense tips the American public can put into practice now or at other times? 

“Some common sense things you can do to protect yourself against any respiratory infection include washing your hands when you get home or to the office, avoiding touching your eyes, your nose, or your mouth, as those are ways of getting germs into your body, and getting rest and drinking plenty of fluids.” 

Dr. Roess can be reached at 703-993-1923 or aroess@gmu.edu. For more information, contact Michelle Thompson, Director of Marketing and Communications at the College of Health and Human Services, at 703- 993-3485 or mthomp7@gmu.edu.  

Additional information: Amira Roess on COVID-19 Testing and Reopening the EconomyAmira Roess on safety during Phase One reopening of the economy

About George Mason University 

George Mason University is Virginia's largest and most diverse public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. For more information, visit https://www2.gmu.edu/

About the College of Health and Human Services 

George Mason University's College of Health and Human Services prepares students to become leaders and shape the public's health through academic excellence, research of consequence and interprofessional practice. The College enrolls 1,917 undergraduate students and 950 graduate students in its nationally recognized offerings, including: 5 undergraduate degrees, 12 graduate degrees, and 11 certificate programs. The College is transitioning to a college public health in the near future. For more information, visit https://chhs.gmu.edu/

 

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