13 Mar 2020

Coronavirus: Answers to the top five questions

5:53 pm on 13 March 2020

RNZ answers the top five questions asked about the coronavirus on Google.

A woman in London wears a mask as a precaution against coronavirus.

There are currently 127,863 cases of COVID-19 reported across the globe and the pandemic is spreading. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that may cause illness in humans or in animals such as cattle, cats, and bats. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections, ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The most recently discovered coronavirus is COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, a major city in China's Hubei Province.

On 7 January, Chinese authorities confirmed the identification of the new type of coronavirus, which had not previously been detected in humans or animals. Laboratory testing ruled out other respiratory pathogens such as influenza, avian influenza, adenovirus, and the SARS and MERS coronaviruses.

Scientists studying the new coronavirus in China reported they had discovered two different varieties of the virus could be spreading around the world. Researchers at Peking University School of Life Sciences and the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai published a study earlier this month identifying a more aggressive type of the virus found in 70 percent of analyzed strains, with 30 percent belonging to a less aggressive variety.

Patient samples at a safety workbench for coronavirus testing.

Photo: AFP

A complete clinical picture has not fully emerged yet, but reported illnesses have ranged from very mild (including some with no reported symptoms) to severe pneumonia, resulting in death. Older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions - like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes - seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness.

How many people have died from it?

As at 25 March, latest figures from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at St Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States, show 20,857  have died worldwide from the illness. There have been 460,250 reported cases of COVID-19. 

Italian police officer at a checkpoint at the small town of Zorlesco, southeast of Milan, on February 26, 2020.

Photo: AFP

The greatest number of deaths have occurred in Italy at 7,503. Italy's rocketing fatality rate has shocked authorities, so much so that the country remains in lockdown. Other parts of Europe are struggling to contain the disease, including Spain (3,445 deaths) and France (1331 deaths). 

There have been 3,130 deaths in Hubei, China, the previous epicenter of the outbreak. 

Deaths in Iran stand have reached 2,057, including the loss of high-profile two politicians. One of them was Fatemeh Rahbar, 55, a conservative MP in Tehran, who died on March 7. The other was top official Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a member of the Expediency Council, which advises Iran's supreme leader. 

The UK has recorded 435 deaths.

Cases are climbing in the United States with 62,873 reported and 192 deaths,

How to prepare for the coronavirus

New Zealand is currently at Alert Level 3 and will move to Alert Level 4 at 11.59 pm on Wednesday 25 March. Level 4 restrictions will remain in place for four weeks.

Under level 4 non-essential business in NZ must all close, including bars, cafes, restaurants and cinemas.

Supermarkets, doctors, pharmacies, service stations, and access to essential banking services will be available throughout New Zealand at every alert level.

Level 4 means that people must stay at home in their family groups. Schools are closed and movement around the country is restricted.

If someone is sick in the household a room should be designated for those who need to be isolated in the house. Identify a separate bathroom for a sick person to use, if possible.

Create an emergency contact list. Ensure your household has a current list of emergency contacts for family, friends, neighbours, carpool drivers, health care providers, teachers, employers, GP surgeries, and other community resources.

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitiser that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. You don't need to stockpile disinfectants and hand sanitisers, but health authorities advise having a bottle or two available.

If you are immune-compromised, avoid staying with a person who is self-isolating. You should stay at least a metre away from people who are unwell. However Ministry of Health says it would not make sense for someone immune-compromised to wear a mask when in public to decrease risk for catching COVID-19. But if your health care provider advises you to wear a mask when in public areas because you have a particularly vulnerable immune system, follow that advice.

How did coronavirus start

A woman walks in front of the closed Huanan wholesale seafood market, where health authorities say a man who died from a respiratory illness had purchased goods from, in the city of Wuhan.

A woman walks in front of the closed Huanan wholesale seafood market, where health authorities say a man who died from a respiratory illness had purchased goods from, in the city of Wuhan. Photo: AFP or licensors

Many of the patients at the inital epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan had some link to a large seafood and live animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread. This is not yet been confirmed, but the market has now been closed.

Later, a growing number of patients reportedly did not have exposure to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan City, indicating person-to-person spread. Person-to-person spread was subsequently reported outside Hubei and in countries outside China. Many areas across the globe now have apparent community spread with the virus that causes COVID-19. Community spread means some people have been infected and it is not known how or where they became exposed.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death for confirmed COVID-19 cases. Symptoms may appear two-14 days after exposure and include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Children may have much milder symptoms than adults but they are just as contagious and therefore more likely to spread the virus due to complacency in not isolating them.

The Ministry of Health says difficulty breathing is a sign of possible pneumonia and requires immediate medical attention.

Its website advises if you have these symptoms and have recently been to a country or area of concern, or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with COVID-19, you should contact Healthline (for free) on 0800 358 5453 (or +64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or your doctor immediately.

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