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Why is COVID-19 causing so much panic?

Coronavirus is a lot like flu, but its unfamiliarity is making the public afraid.
Scott Steinmann
Posted at 5:34 PM, Mar 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-09 11:10:29-04

This is Part 1 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.

COVID-19 is a respiratory infection just like the flu or a cold. So why is SXSW being canceled -- and why are there contingency plans being drawn up for postponing the Summer Olympics -- over what is an everyday virus; something people would ordinarily treat with over-the-counter medications?

"It's an unknown," said Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District Clinical Director Dr. Kim Onufrak. "It's an unknown virus, so a lot of people are gonna be more reactive to that versus the flu. Right now, we don’t know how it’s going to act. So more people are more cautious, I think."

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

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.

"(Coronavirus) is a very common type of virus around the world," said Driscoll Children's Hospital Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist Dr. Jaime Fergie. "We have four (coronaviruses) that we detect commonly here at Driscoll. So those four are also coronaviruses, and they all are respiratory viruses. They're indistinguishable from the other, and they look the same as other common respiratory viruses like rhinoviruses, or RSV, or many other ones."

The symptoms of COVID-19, and coronavirus in general, are common viral symptoms: cough, fever and sore throat.

"There’s nothing I can tell you that ‘If you have this, you have COVID-19,’ " Fergie said. "That does not exist. No. Let’s make that very clear."

Virus Outbreak Surgeon General bumping elbows
U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams (right) bumps elbows with Conn. Gov. Ned Lamont as they meet for a visit the Connecticut State Public Health Laboratory this week. The Surgeon General is encouraging people to bump elbows rather than shaking hands or fist bumps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott's office announced Wednesday that labs will be established throughout the state which will have the capability to test for COVID-19, including one in Corpus Christi. But only those who fit certain criteria will be prioritized for testing, said Onufrak, and no one in Corpus Christi meets the standard as of Friday. Not even the two people in the city being monitored for COVID-19 by the health district.

"But (the health district is) not going to be able to test more than five people a day," Fergie said. "So it's not like 'Hey, open the floodgates.' They can't. So we have to really test the people who have had a contact; a history of travel. People who went through China, Japan, South Korea, Iran or Italy within the past 14 days."

"We're going to have to test these people because we know in those countries there has been a widespread community transmission of the virus, but not because somebody walked in the mall in San Antonio. No, that is not a contact. That is not something of concern."

So who qualifies for testing?

"If you traveled to any of the affected areas and you have symptoms, then . . . that would be more prevalence for testing," she said. "If you’ve traveled from an affected area and you have symptoms, then that would be: testing."

The other option for those who fit the established guidelines is: monitoring. Onufrak said the two people her office currently is monitoring returned from China, but not from Hubei province. If they had, "then that would have elevated the concern higher." They are now being asked to take their temperatures twice a day and self-isolate.

"(They) are asymptomatic," Onufrak said. "They do not have a fever, cough, shortness of breath. They feel very well. They did not come in into contact with anybody that have had COVID-19."

Virus Outbreak-Hawaii
Hawaii state Department of Health microbiologist Mark Nagata demonstrates the process for testing a sample for COVID-19 at the department's laboratory in Pearl City, Hawaii on Tuesday. Hawaii officials said Tuesday they are capable of testing 250 samples for the new coronavirus each week.

Once the health district is outfitted with testing capability, it will be the only place in the city that can do it. Both doctors stressed that hospitals do not have the equipment to test for COVID-19, so walking into local emergency rooms asking to be tested won't do any good.

"We just ask that, if you feel like you have the symptoms, please don't rush to the doctor's office; please don't rush to the ER," Onufrak said. "Call the local health authority or call your doctor or your ER for advice before coming in. Because if you are sick, don't expose a whole lobby or a whole group of people. Then that's how it spreads."

Fergie said it is likely the San Antonio patient -- who had been tested and was diagnosed negative twice before testing positive a third time -- what was called a "weak positive."

"That person probably was not contagious anyhow, because those tests are what we call 'extremely sensitive,' " Fergie said. "So they can detect pieces of the dead virus for a long time. So the fact that you detected doesn't mean the virus is still alive. Most likely it was not."

Fergie said the type of testing done on patients, called a polymerase chain reaction test, is a very sensitive test that is frequently used in diagnosing infection. He defined sensitive, in a laboratory setting, as being able to detect infection at miniscule levels.

"Just because it's detectable doesn't mean it is infectious," he said.

If a patient is coughing and feverish, and tests positive, he said, that is cause for concern.

"But (if) you're detected two weeks later, that's probably just remnants of genetic material," Fergie said.

The fact that it's indistinguishable from other common viruses and illnesses isn't a cause for concern, either. Don't assume that a cough or shortness of breath automatically means COVID-19.

"It is not feasible for anybody to figure out just by the way they feel, or by the symptoms they have, if they have this COVID-19," Fergie said. "Or they have common influenza, or they have one of the many, many, common respiratory viruses that are circulating right now in the United States."

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