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Coronavirus basics: A medical expert gives us a foundation for understanding

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As new information emerges about coronavirus and COVID-19, seemingly multiple times a day, we wanted to take a moment and go back over the basics. Good basic information can do a lot to help in a crisis, and provide a foundation to make sense of new developments.

KNKX spoke with Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, professor emeritus at University of Washington School of Medicine. She also started the APEC Emerging Infections Network, to look at new illnesses emerging from highly populous countries in Asia.

She helped us review the basics. You can listen to the audio above, and read a transcript below. It’s been edited for clarity. 

This interview took place March 3, 2020.

KNKX: How is coronavirus spread?

Dr. Ann Marie Kimball: It seems to be related to air droplets from coughing and sneezing, but it also persists up to about eight hours on surfaces, so if you touch a surface where someone has been coughing and sneezing and there’s virus on it, and then you touch your eyes or face, which we all seem to do very frequently, you can also get it that way.

I should note that out of China, there’s also some studies that suggest that it can be in stool – in feces – and therefore washing your hands before and after the bathroom is also very critical here.

We need to have more information about how (the virus) persists. But basically, the message for the average person is just be sure and clean surfaces. A classic example would be an airliner tray … or going into a common restroom, where you just want to have your wipes and make sure you give it a good wipe-down.

KNKX: What’s the best way to clean surfaces? Do I need to look for a certain type of alcohol content in cleaning wipes?

AMK: According to the CDC you need to use alcohol wipes, which are more than 60 percent alcohol. The other kinds of wipes we have are anti-bacterials. If it’s just an anti-bacterial wipe without alcohol it really won’t do any good because this is a virus.

KNKX: What do the symptoms look like, and how severe are they?

AMK: The symptoms look a lot like the flu. You get a fever and a cough and some kinds of aches. We’re also beginning to understand there’s a lot of asymptomatic illness, where people have the virus but they don’t get sick. But those are the initial symptoms. For about 20 percent of people they may get a pneumonia, and the symptoms of that are difficulty breathing and, usually, a high temperature.

Children seem to be largely unaffected clinically, or have very mild symptoms. So if you’re under 19 the news is good.

KNKX: I’ve also heard people saying “I’m young, I’m healthy, I don’t need to do anything different or think about this.” I wonder if that’s perhaps a little risky?

AMK: That’s always a little risky. If we didn’t have COVID-19, we always have influenza in these years, and we’re having a pretty significant influenza event going on at the same time as COVID-19. Pathogens are equal opportunity employers. Just because you’re young and healthy and feel pretty good today doesn’t mean you’re not walking into an infection, and you should always be careful.

KNKX: What is coronavirus as opposed to COVID-19?

AMK: Coronavirus is a kind of RNA virus. Viruses are basically genetic material wrapped up in a protein and what they do is they come into cells, take over the cell’s machinery, and use that to replicate themselves. That’s generally what viruses are. When you speak about coronaviruses, it’s a certain family of virus. We knew about four different kinds of coronavirus that are implicated in the common cold. Then we had the emergence of SARS back in 2003, and then we had the emergence of MERS. So this is the third pretty pathogenic emergence of a coronavirus into humans. It goes from animals into humans and we get a lot of our pathogens that way.

KNKX: And COVID-19 is the disease, or the illness, that comes from this coronavirus?

AMK: Yes.

KNKX: What’s the smartest way to address symptoms without spreading the illness?

AMK: Certainly not to go to work, especially if they work in common areas. Stay home, go to see your doctor, and get a swab test. This is diagnosed through throat swabs. The problem has been that the testing has not been generally available.

KNKX: And we expect that availability might increase as we get further into this.

AMK: Definitely. You’re going to see a lot more positive tests and that’s going to be confusing for people. They’ll think things are getting a lot worse, when in fact we’re probably seeing what has been here now.

KNKX: If somebody does require medical attention, what can they expect from that experience?

AMK: Most of our treatment for COVID-19 is similar to what we’d do with a bad case of influenza, and that is supportive – knocking down the fever, plenty of fluids, and supportive respiration if the pneumonia becomes serious. Therapeutically we have a couple of anti-virals, one of which was used on the first case in Snohomish (County). There are a number of other anti-viral medications that are also in clinical trials. Vaccines would be at least a year to a year-and-a-half off.

KNKX: Can you give us a sense of perspective? I think people are just curious how concerned they should be.

AMK: I personally think you should keep an eye on the news, and if you’re in a community that becomes pretty impacted and there are cases occurring actively in your community, you should listen to your local public health authorities about what you should be doing to protect yourself. And other than that, the standard things we do during flu season – stay home when you’re sick, wash your hands, and socially isolate if you’re really feeling ill … just stay home.

KNKX: There’s been a lot of coverage of this, and a lot of information floating around, and a lot of bad information. Can you address the way we’re talking about this?

AMK: Two things are really concerning to me. The bad information is largely conspiracy theories and the idea in some senses that this was some kind of a biowarfare weapon or whatever. I mean, these things are going around on the internet, and they’re a symptom of a lack of good, transparent information from authoritative sources, but also just people listening to rumors.

The best way to really know what’s going on is to follow the CDC and check in with your local and state health authorities.

The second (thing that really bothers me) is stigma. Because (coronavirus) has nothing to do with being Chinese. It’s not a Chinese virus. In fact, there are more cases and deaths outside of China now than there were in China – new cases, not overall. It’s really important for the average person to understand that it’s not Chinese people who give you this. People tend when they’re afraid and misinformed to fall back on prejudice, and I think that’s really important for us to be conscious of.

Dr. Ann Marie Kimball is a professor emeritus at UW School of Medicine, and is a senior consulting fellow in the global health program at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. She spoke with KNKX’s Ed Ronco on March 3, 2020.


Global Health Coronavirus Coverage
Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.