COVID-19 spread spurred by close contact, respiratory droplets

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus is in more than 100 countries, including the U.S.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports there are 938 confirmed cases in the U.S. and 29 people have died from the virus. It can be fatal, but more testing may provide clearer numbers.

Experts say it appears to be more infectious than common flu, with an infectiousness level similar to measles.

Because COVID-19 is a new virus — a novel virus — there is no cure and it is a new challenge for the human immune system to confront. But, experts are finding it is — at this point — far more contagious, than deadly.

Dr. Malia Jones, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said fatality rate figures could go down as more testing data is provided.

“The case fatality rate is the number of deaths for every 1,000 confirmed cases,” Jones said. And the case fatality rate is something like 34 per 1,000. That’s being reported coming out of globally, but the problem with that estimate is it’s only confirmed cases. We think, the best guess right now, is there are a lot of cases that have mild symptoms.”

Those cases go unrecorded.

It is also useful to know the spread appears to be largely from respiratory droplets — someone coughing or sneezing within close proximity.

Touching your nose, mouth or eyes after that spray can lead to you catching it.

The CDC says it’s not clear how long the droplets remain on other surfaces. Estimates range from a few hours to days, but it is considered a less likely source of spread.

Using cleaning products to wipe down frequently touched surfaces and handwashing are encouraged.

Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health said the virus incubation period can be up to several days.

“We’re aware the incubation period is between two and 14 days,” she said. “Again from the time of exposure until the time the person actually develops the disease. But there is a range in the incubation period and actually in about the middle of that range is when more patients have been having disease, as I understand from scientific data.”

The main symptoms aren’t startling. They include a fever of over at least 100.4, coughing and trouble breathing. The spread can take place while an infected person still has mild symptoms. Generally, the consensus seems to be the sicker the person is — the more contagious they are.

“We do know that younger people, children and younger adults tend to have had less difficulty with this and have actually been able to recover quite well,” she said.

Older people and people with an underlying health condition or immune suppression like cancer patients are more vulnerable. Health experts warn that extra care be taken around older loved ones.

Airborne contact is considered an unlikely source for the virus. But the Centers for Disease Control said it is still learning about how the virus spreads and the severity of illness it causes. Recent aggressive testing in South Korea has shown the fatality rate on tested cases is much lower than earlier reports.

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