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By: C. Leilani Valdes MD, FCAP 

Monday, March 2, 2020

Cuero, Texas: Search the internet for coronavirus and you are sure to pull up multiple news stories about the 2019 novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) quickly spreading through China first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, with a few cases now being identified internationally. A global health scare, the emergence of this new severe and deadly strain of coronavirus has people concerned about keeping themselves healthy and uninfected. However, not all coronaviruses are the same.

The family of coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s, and there are seven sub-types that commonly infect people. Of those, four cause symptoms of “the common cold” – 229E, NL63, OC43 and HKU1. Citizens Medical Center has the technology to identify these four which helps your physician decide on your treatment course, if anything beyond common cold treatment is needed.

Occasionally, as in the case of SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and now 2019-nCoV, coronaviruses that infect animals may evolve to become a new coronavirus that infects humans and makes them sick. The exact source of this newest strain is still being researched through gene sequencing. These novel strains often cause more severe illness, but they are different than the four we commonly detect in the laboratory.

Currently, only the CDC can run a test to detect this new strain of coronavirus. In other words, if you or someone you know tests positive for a coronavirus on a test run locally, it is not the 2019-nCoV currently causing international concern.

Alternatively, if you are negative for coronavirus, that does not mean you can rule out 2019-nCoV – this test would have to be sent to the CDC and would be accompanied by a history of recent travel to China. It’s important to remember that while the coronaviruses causing the common cold and the coronaviruses causing global outbreaks with deadly consequences may share a name, they have very different health consequences.

As a pathologist (a physician who diagnoses disease and supervises laboratory testing), I see an advantage to knowing the cause of flu and cold symptoms to prevent overuse of antibiotic and identification of infectious organisms that have a more severe outcome than just a cold. However, I am concerned that our community knows that the coronavirus we test for is not the same as the one wreaking havoc globally.

What can you do to protect yourself, community?
Remember the viruses that pose an immediate danger to us all, and get your flu shot. This year’s flu season has already proven to be one of the deadliest on record, and it’s not over yet. Flu deaths in the U.S. this year outnumber the total number of new coronavirus infections worldwide.

A flu infection may not be preventable, but studies have shown that people who are vaccinated have a shorter course and lower rate of severe infection and death from flu related illnesses. Furthermore, vaccination protects the members of our community who cannot get vaccinated due to medical restrictions or weak immune systems. At this point in time, you are far more likely to get the flu than to be exposed to 2019-nCoV. There is still time to protect yourself and our community by getting vaccinated.

Practice good hygiene. To prevent spread of viruses, practice the following:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Avoid touching your face unless you have just washed your hands.
  • Cover your cough.
  • If you are sick, stay home and avoid contact with others.
  • Seek medical care if your symptoms are worsening or if you have trouble breathing. Notify your physician if you have symptoms and recent international travel history.

The good news is that world health organizations and international governments are taking the new 2019-nCoV outbreak very seriously. Global containment measures are being put in place to control the spread of this deadly outbreak. Remember that you are more likely to have the flu or a cold than be infected by this newly identified strain of coronavirus. Do your part to stay healthy by getting your vaccines and practicing good health hygiene.

Special thanks to Dr. Daniel Cano for assistance with this column.
Published as a guest column in The Victoria Advocate, Feb. 1, 2020