Dr. Blair Reece, an associate professor of medicine at East Tennessee State University, said there’s a lot we don’t know about the new virus, which was first discovered in Wuhan, China, in December.
“We want to make smart, informed decisions when we tell people to close schools and that kind of thing, but we don’t know everything about this,” she said. “We don’t know 100% if we are being too conservative or too aggressive (with preventative measures). We don’t know.”
Where did the virus come from, and where is it now?
The virus, which was classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization last week, is part of a large family of viruses ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome. Like the common cold, there is no cure for the novel coronavirus.
But this particular pathogen is something new.
“The theory is that the common cold coronavirus that lives in humans infected some type of animal, mutated in that animal, and then reinfected humans,” Reece said. “So it is a new strain the world has not seen before.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the illness infected 73 people in Tennessee, including one in Sullivan County. A tracking map from Johns Hopkins University recorded more than 195,000 infections globally, with more than 5,700 in the United States. Total global deaths rose above 7,800, with more than 90 deaths recorded in the U.S. Numbers continued to rise throughout the day.
While there’s still a lot to learn about the virus, Reece said we do know the risk of more infections remains high.
“We do know that nobody in the world has any immunity to this. We do know it has about a tenfold mortality rate compared to the flu, so we do know if it spreads and is left unchecked, we are going to lose a lot of our citizens and family members,” Reece said.
Following last week’s announcement of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the region in Sullivan County, Ballad Health has continued its response and preparedness efforts, including opening a hotline for potential cases and screening.
But because many people have still not been tested, Reece said we have “no idea the true number of cases in America or even our community.”
“I think that we all fully believe there are more cases that we don’t know about, especially because, in children, they may be asymptomatic,” Reece said.
What do we know about the dangers presented?
Symptoms usually include fever, cough and shortness of breath, but some cases are asymptomatic. At this point, health officials are not sure how contagious people without symptoms are. There’s also uncertainly about why some people can have little to no symptoms, while others have more severe symptoms like pneumonia or even kidney failure.
Reece said the death rate for people ages 60 to 69 is about 3.5%, while the death rate for patients ages 70 to 79 is 8%. For those 80 or older, the death rate can sit between “15 to 20%.”
According to information on Ballad Health’s website, “most people who contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms and will make a full recovery.” About 80% of those infected report mild symptoms, but people with underlying health issues and compromised immune systems are also at risk of more severe symptoms or death.
“It certainly affects our older patients significantly more, and those with underlying medical diseases. That includes things like diabetes, high blood pressure, lung disease — things that are very common,” Reece said.
“In the 10 to 39 age group, it still has a death rate that’s about twice the flu,” she later added. “Your chances if you are 35 and healthy are fantastic, but you can’t say with 100% certainty.”
According to Ballad Health, most infants, children and adolescents with COVID-19, who are traditionally more susceptible to severe respiratory infections, have experienced more mild cases of the infection and recovered within a week or two.
Symptoms can arise within two to 14 days. Younger patients can contract the virus and show no symptoms, meaning they could spread the disease to other, more vulnerable members of their families and social circles.
“The only people we can say with fairly good certainty are going to be fine are children 10 and under,” Reece said. “They may pass it on to their parents, grandparents and things like that, and we (often) never even capture the fact that the children have it.”
What precautions should we take?
On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recommended public school closures throughout the state until March 31, which prompted local districts across Northeast Tennessee to close their schools for all activities. ETSU has recently restricted university-sponsored travel, suspended in-person classes following spring break and established a mobile COVID-19 testing unit.
In addition to these measures and others, Ballad Health announced strict visitation restrictions Friday. After that, several local bars, venues and restaurants announced closures and canceled events.
“Unfortunately, only history will tell us if we’ve moved fast enough or not, but I think that today is better than tomorrow,” Reece said.
The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization have urged people to disinfect surfaces, wash their hands frequently with soap and water, keep hand sanitizer on hand, stay home if sick, avoid touching faces with hands and practice social distancing.
Officials recommend avoiding crowds of 10 or more people, close contact with those who are sick and large public events that have not been canceled.
“I think it’s important we do that,” Reece said, adding that “we know it will spread quickly if left unchecked.”
For those infected, health officials have also recommended a 14-day quarantine period without visitors and treatments similar to those used for cold or flu symptoms.
Reece said stopping the spread of the virus will require a community-wide effort. That way, Reece said, “We will be able to get through this together.”
“We are all in this together as a community and as a city. Even for people that are young and healthy that feel they’re relatively immune, it’s their responsibility — as it’s all of our responsibilities — to help protect our parents, our grandparents, our neighbor that may have cancer, heart disease or lung disease,” she said.
Additional information about the coronavirus in Tennessee can be found at www.tn.gov/health.