LOUISVILLE — Since first appearing at the turn of the year, nearly 76,000 cases of the latest strain of coronavirus have been confirmed across the globe.
The virus — referred to as SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 — has taken 2,130 lives thus far. The outbreak is currently acknowledged as an epidemic in China, since a vast majority of cases have been contained within the borders of the country.
Out of the 75,775 cases, 74,579 have been diagnosed in mainland China. This, according to University of Louisville Hospital epidemiologist Forest Arnold, shows that the rest of the world is taking the proper precautions to ensure the disease doesn’t reach outbreak levels internationally.
“There’s been about 1,000 people infected outside of China, and more than half of those have been in the cruise ship off the coast of Japan,” he said. “Just 500 people among 75,000 are not in China. That’s a comfortable number to know that they’ve got it under control.”
COVID-19 is similar to other coronaviruses that have infected thousands of people in the last two decades. SARS — or SARS-CoV-2 — popped up in China in 2002, eventually spreading to 8,098 people, of which 774 died. Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) has a much higher mortality rate, killing well over 800 of the roughly 2,500 people infected, according to figures from the World Health Organization.
Arnold, who gave a presentation on what the future holds for COVID-19 at University of Louisville Hospital early Thursday morning, said that the latest disease is likely to fall between SARS and MERS in terms of the danger it poses.
“We experienced swine flu just a few years ago, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as the [Spanish flu] pandemic that occurred [in 1918], even though it was the same H1N1,” Arnold said. “What’s worse than [swine flu] is the SARS outbreak in 2002. This one, SARS-CoV-2, appears to be a little worse than the 2002 SARS. MERS has even higher mortality than SARS-CoV-2, and bird flu has the highest mortality of all those flus.”
The risk to the Louisville and Southern Indiana region isn’t immediate, as Arnold noted that just 15 people in the United States have officially acquired the disease. The closest case was found in Chicago this month.
There, a person was diagnosed, with the disease spreading to their spouse.
“Beyond that, there haven’t been any cases close,” Arnold said. “Those two cases have not spread to other people, and it’s been over a week, maybe two weeks. With that information, I think we can safely say that we’re not seeing it now. Especially with the quarantine in place and no flights coming from China to the United States.”
Cases appear to be tapering off in China, Arnold said. Developed countries, including the United States, have not seen any spikes, either.
That, however, doesn’t mean the danger for the rest of the globe has quite passed.
“When it gets to a developing country, they don’t have the resources to keep people in quarantine and that kind of thing,” Arnold said. “We may see a big outbreak in a country like India or Bangladesh. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, but some treatments are being studied more aggressively. In the coming months, a vaccine should become available.
In the meantime, Arnold said it’s important to practice basic hygiene, including things as simple as washing hands or wearing a mask in waiting rooms. This is beneficial not only in the event of COVID-19 spreading in the United States, but for the diseases that are already endemic, such as influenza.
Numbers from the CDC show that roughly 14,000 people have died so far during the 2019-2020 flu season.
“[The coronavirus] vaccine won’t be here for a couple months,” Arnold said. “We’ve only had 15 cases, and not a case in the last week. As time progresses, we may get more cases, and [people] need to pay attention to where it is. Do what they can for what we already have.”