What’s coronavirus? What’s COVID-19? A pandemic explainer

With any breaking, evolving news story, misinformation abounds. Some of it is intentional, spread by entities who take advantage of bad times to manipulate people or to scam them. But so much of it is also caused by confusion. In an effort to keep everyone well-informed, we’ve answered some of the questions below that we’ve seen, or heard, pop up most as this ongoing story has unfolded.

Peter Lozinski is the editor of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.

What is coronavirus?

These days, when you hear someone say “coronavirus”, they’re more than likely referring to the virus causing the current outbreak. But you also might see coronavirus in old textbooks, or on old cleaning supplies. That’s because coronavirus isn’t new at all. This particular strain is.

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that cause respiratory-related illnesses, some more severe than others.

Other strains of coronavirus range from the common cold to severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which caused a pandemic in 2003, killing almost 800 people.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, the World Health Organization says, meaning they can be transmitted between animals and people. Several coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.

The coronavirus disease that’s currently circulating was caused by a new strain discovered in Wuhan, China in 2019. It had not been previously identified in humans. That’s why it was called Novel coronavirus, or new coronavirus. Novel Coronavirus is the name of the bug. COVID-19 is the name of the illness.

Should I worry?

According to the World Health Organization, infection is generally mild, especially for children and young adults. However, about one out of every five people who catch it needs hospital care.

As of Monday, there were 168,019 confirmed cases worldwide and over 6,000 deaths. While the virus appeared to originate in China, the epicentre of the pandemic is now in Europe.

Other pandemics, such as Ebola and SARS have been more deadly worldwide but spread to fewer people.

The most recent pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, spread to more people — infecting about 24 per cent of the global population. But its death rate was just .02 per cent, far below the 3.5 per cent global death rate seen with COVID-19 so far.

Canada has seen five deaths and about 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19. That’s a mortality rate of about one per cent, far below the global average. Four deaths came at a BC long-term care home that is battling an outbreak. The other was a 70-year-old man in Ontario.

Why do you keep calling it a pandemic?

Pandemic is a technical term.  It really just means a disease that is prevalent over a whole country or the world. COVID-19 has spread to 148 countries, areas or territories so far. The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

What do people mean when they say “flattening the curve.”

Flattening the curve and social distancing have become the two buzz words to come out of this pandemic. Flattening the curve is a response to the graph showing how many people become infected over time. With no measures in place at all, the virus spreads exponentially.

Without an exponential amount of people, though, it hits its limit, eventually reducing down to zero.

The more measures are put in place, the slower that spread will be. That causes the increase in cases to be a more gentle slope and that curve, that graph of how many people are sick over time smooths and squishes out. Hence, flattening the curve.

Social distancing is the term being used to describe how to stay safe. It means a lot of what was meant when SARS broke out – avoid handshakes and hugs, stay at least two metres from other people. It means go about your life, but keep your distance from others, and if you’re sick, stay home.

What do they mean travel-related?

So far in Saskatchewan anyone who has become infected with COVID-19 travelled either out of the country or to large conferences in Canada where there was exposure.

That means they got it elsewhere and brought it back here.

Community-based transmission is different. That’s been seen in BC, Alberta and Ontario. That means people who acquired COVID-19 elsewhere returned home and then spread it to someone else IN Canada. Saskatchewan hasn’t seen any of that yet.

I heard they’ve developed a vaccine.

Kind of.

Work is ongoing at VIDO-Intervac at the University of Saskatchewan. They’ve made good progress in the early stages, but lots of testing still have to be done. Most experts say a vaccine is still about a year away.

Well, what can I do?

It sounds simple, but distance yourself. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. Stay away from large crowds. If you’re sick, stay away from others.

If you think about it, it’s common sense. What would you do anytime you’re sick or if you want to avoid a cold? You wouldn’t shake hands. You wouldn’t go out in crowds, and you would wash your hands as much as you could.

Prevention here looks much the same. The stakes are a little higher, as COVID-19 can kill people who are immunocompromised or have other underlying health conditions. It also preys on the elderly — Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer says, globally, the mortality rate for people aged 80 and up is about 14 per cent. It’s very low in people under the age of 20 and less than one per cent in younger adults. It ranges from two to five per cent in middle-aged adults.

That means, though, that staying home if you’re sick is super important. So is staying away from hospitals, care homes or other places vulnerable people are housed. Because while you might be fine yourself, what you’re doing is helping someone who isn’t as lucky as you.

It’s like the prime minister, the premier and the medical health officer said over the past few days — we have to look out for each other.