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Accurate information key to battling COVID-19 fears

Billy Primos, Mary Jane Primos
Posted at 10:06 PM, Mar 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-10 17:00:30-04

This is Part 2 in a two-part series on COVID-19: What it is, how the health department is handling diagnosis and panic, and whether the panic related to it is warranted.

Local doctors and health professionals said it's important to them to try and alleviate the hysteria surrounding local COVID-19 and coronavirus fears.

Since COVID-19 began claiming lives in China's Hubei province, coronavirus scares have popped up all over the Coastal Bend.

Virus Outbreak China
A man pushes his luggage past workers in protective suits as they wait to take the temperature of travelers at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing on Friday. An industry group says the spreading coronavirus could cost airlines as much as $113 billion in lost revenue.

KRIS 6 News has received Facebook messages for weeks asking the station to investigate coronavirus in Portland, in Corpus Christi, at Christus Spohn Hospital Shoreline and at Bay Area Hospital. And there might have been: just not COVID-19.

"There's no reason for us to raise the level of anxiety or panic in the community," said Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District Director Annette Rodriguez when asked recently about the local panic on social media. "We really need to know what's going on around the world -- locally, for sure -- but know what's going on and don't just make up things. A lot of anxiety's built up, and for no good reason."

Especially since there are protocols in place to identify which overseas travelers need to be in contact with health officials, and contact is not a decision that's left to the traveler's discretion.

"Usually if they travel from Dallas or one of the main airports, they'll be screened if they're coming from China and they'll be asked what their final destination is," saod Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District Clinical Director Dr. Kim Onufrak said. "If their final destination is Corpus, then the local health department, we, are notified that we have a traveler coming in, and we are given their name and when they should arrive. Our team reaches out to that person."

Dr. Kim Onufrak 2 0310.jpg
Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District Clinical Director Kim Onufrak said, currently, COVID-19 risk to the Coastal Bend is very low. If that changes, Onufrak assures KRIS 6 News that the health district will let the public know. Any information "confirming" COVID-19 in the area that comes from another source, she said, isn't accurate.

And, for right now, the health district said risk to the Coastal Bend is very low.

If that changes, Onufrak assures KRIS 6 News that the health district will let the public know. Any information "confirming" COVID-19 in the area that comes from another source, she said, isn't accurate.

"There's a lot of overreation," said Driscoll Children's Hospital Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist Dr. Jaime Fergie. "A lot of panic. Clearly we're still learning about this virus. We're still learning about, you know, how severe it is. Or not. We're trying to gauge, specifically, but I think the more we learn about it, we're realizing it's probably not as bad as it was thought initially."

He said it's common to hear worst-case scenarios when a new illness that can be spread as simply as by touch is diagnosed. But what usually happens, he said, is that once more study is done on the subject and more samples are collected, medical professionals realize there are also patients who have the same illness in a less severe form and those numbers are far higher than the number of deaths. And suddenly, the mortality rate that at first seemed astronomical, is put into perspective.

"I think that is precisely what is happening right now with this virus," Fergie said. "We're finding out that it's not as bad as we thought it was."

What he also said it's important to understand is that the patients who have died of COVID-19 are a specific portion of the population.

"We (heard) recently, of course, about the very tragic death in Washington state, in Seattle, in a nursing home," Fergie said. "A very high-risk population, so that's the other point here: The people who are dying usually are the elderly -- and, of course their life is as valuable as any other life -- and the people who have underlying conditions, be it cardiovascular or respiratory."

India Virus Outbreak
An Indian doctor stands outside a special ward set aside for possible COVID-19 patients at a government run hospital in Jammu, India on Friday. For weeks India watched as COVID-19 spread in neighboring China and other countries as its own caseload remained static. But with the virus now spreading communally in the country of 1.4 billion and 31 confirmed cases, authorities are scrambling to ready a beleaguered and vastly unequal medical system for a potential surge of patients.

He uses a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine that reported a 1.4 percent mortality rate among 1099 patients in China as an example. In the same issue of the journal, an editorial was written by Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading immunologist, and the director of the National Institute of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates the mortality rate will end up being "considerably less than 1 percent."

"This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of COVID-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1 percent)," Fauci writes.

Fergie agrees.

"I think that this is going to turn out to be, hopefully, more like a severe flu -- perhaps a little more severe for some people," he said.

The CDC currently is reporting 125 pediatric deaths, 18,000 adult deaths. 310,000 hospitalizations and 31 million people affected with influenza in the U.S. From a pediatrics perspective, he said, the COVID-19 statistics are even better than the flu.

"The children are doing extremely well," he said. "Children are not dying, and are not getting sick with it. So that is a big difference because, with the flu, we have a lot of children."

He said the upside to people fearing COVID-19 is that there's more of an emphasis on hand washing and people more cognizant of limiting hand-to-hand and hand-to-face contact.

"A lot of people are going to save their lives because they're not going to get the flu," he said. "So more people will benefit because they're gonna avoid the flu rather than coronavirus."

KRIS 6 News multimedia journalist Catherine McGinty contributed to this story.