Just as 2019 was ending, Chinese authorities reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) that a potentially new virus was circulating in the city of Wuhan. It was a respiratory virus causing pneumonia-like symptoms – congestion, shortness of breath and fever.
The next day, Jan. 1, the suspected source of the infections, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, was closed. Th e fresh meat market was a place where animals and humans were in close contact with each other. Such markets have been the source of past viral disease outbreaks.
One week later on Jan. 7 Chinese authorities confirmed a new, or novel, coronavirus was infecting people in Wuhan and four days later, Jan, 11, it reported the first death from what is now labeled Covid-19.
Despite strict quarantine measures that were instituted in Wuhan, the viral infections from the novel coronavirus began popping up in other cities around China. And, in a few days, other countries in the region were also reporting cases.
Today, more than 60 countries have reported cases of coronavirus, including the United States, with over 3,000 deaths and the number climbing rapidly. Two deaths have now been reported in America, both in Washington State and 13 states have confirmed cases. So far, Minnesota hasn’t seen a case, but it is just a matter of days or a couple weeks before it does.
With more than 6 million people flying around the globe every day it is nearly impossible to contain the spread of an infectious disease. We know local people who are traveling now to Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Hawaii. They have returned, or will return, to their homes in western Minnesota possibly, unknowingly, carrying the coronavirus with them.
What is so worrisome about this new virus is that it appears to be far more deadly than the seasonal fl u that causes 30,000 to 61,000 deaths annually in the U.S. Flu has a mortality rate of around 0.01 percent. The coronavirus mortality rate could be closer to 2.0 percent – 20 times as high. However, it is suspected that many more mild cases of the coronavirus are not being reported, which would lower that percentage.
Minnesota and local public health officials are already mobilizing to address the eventual spread of the coronavirus here.
Schools and communities should be preparing their response plans for a coronavirus outbreak now, Kris Ehresmann, director for infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health, said last week. “Something that has seemed remote and kind of focused in the health care setting — with the increase in transmission globally … we really need to make sure that people are aware that this virus could now impact their daily lives,” she said.
Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) officials are giving weekly updates to healthcare providers around the state including at local clinics and hospitals. Countryside Public Health and Horizon Public Health are both mobilizing to educate citizens about the spread of the coronavirus to western Minnesota.
“We want you to start thinking about this both so that you’re aware that this may impact how you do your work … or it may impact some of the institutions in your life, including something as basic as schools,” Ehresmann said.
If the virus does come here, it may mean cancelling sporting events and concerts. Businesses may have to change how they operate.
“We’re sure not trying to project doom and gloom,” Mike Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said. “But we have to be honest so that when people begin to see this unfold that they say, ‘Well, you know, we knew this could happen, and this is what we’re going to do about it.’”
“Families need to have plans for how they will stay in contact with each other,” he said. “Who’s going to take care of Grandma if she gets sick? For single parent families, who’s going to be there when the kids get sick or the mom or dad get sick? Th at’s the kind of thing right now that is really important that we need to begin to address, and you know we haven’t.”
There is no evidence to support that the spread of the coronavirus will ease with the warmer months of spring and summer, Osterholm says.
A coronavirus vaccine is as much as 12 to 14 months from being available to the public. Even with an expedited process to make it available once developed, it must go through human trials to ensure its effectiveness and safety.
Essential to the success of any national, state and local effort to fight the spread of the coronavirus will be preparation, clarity on what is needed, and honesty from government officials.
This effort can’t be politicized. We can’t be told everything is going to be just fine when we may have a hard time ahead of us. Th e markets react to fact, not hype or spin. The markets have shown us that investors believe there are long-term, serious consequences coming in the days and weeks ahead as international supply chains American industry relies on are disrupted. Those investors also know that with tens of thousands of flights cancelled, hotel rooms not booked, conventions and sporting events cancelled, vacations postponed, and meals not eaten in restaurants, that the rippling effects to our economy will be substantial.
What this pandemic should also show us with brutal emphasis is the critical necessity of funding public health research and information gathering. It should highlight the importance of respect for our scientific and medical research communities. In recent years, we’ve seen the budgets and programs for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health severely cut. More cuts were planned for this year for NIH and CDC budgets.
This year’s coronavirus won’t be the last to rapidly spread around the World. Th ere will be others. How effectively we prepare for the coronavirus will have a direct impact on how successfully we we deal with it in the coming months – and be a lesson for the future.