(This story has been updated to reflect the most current information)
As of March 14, 2020, no cases of novel coronavirus (2019-nCOV) have been reported in Santa Barbara County, nor is anyone under suspicion of having been exposed to the virus that originated in Wuhan, China; although the California Department of Public Health reports 247 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the state.
Still, the virus that has been making its way around the world has sparked a lot of concern within the campus community. Student Health Services Medical Director Ali Javanbakht, M.D., Associate Medical Director, Laura Polito, M.D., and Infection Control Coordinator Holly Smith, R.N., sat down with The Current to shed some light on this new strain of a common virus.
TC: What is coronavirus?
Laura Polito: Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are common among humans and animals. When you get a common cold, a coronavirus is often to blame. Practically everyone has been exposed at one time or another in their life but not to this new “novel” strain of coronavirus. This newly discovered strain has not previously been found in humans.
In general coronaviruses are not particularly dangerous, though there is a subset that can be riskier, for example, SARS and MERS-CoV. This new strain does not appear to be as virulent as those.
TC: What are the symptoms?
Laura Polito: The vast majority of people who get common coronavirus experience symptoms similar to those of a common cold — runny nose, sore throat, headache, fever. They’ll be sick for 7 to 10 days and then they’ll be back to normal.
TC: Is this newly discovered strain of coronavirus more dangerous than others?
Laura Polito: In a certain subset of patients, this one is causing viral pneumonia. That’s what’s different about this one. In general, those more at risk include infants, the elderly, and people with underlying health conditions. But I’m not sure we know enough about this particular virus to say those are the only people at risk.
TC: Is the flu vaccine effective against coronavirus?
Ali Javanbakht: No, the flu vaccine won’t help with coronavirus. However, the biggest problem on campus right now is the flu, and the vaccine definitely helps with that. The flu is a much more pressing issue because it’s all around us right now. Student Health Service is expecting a resupply of the flu vaccine within 24 hours and the flu vaccine is available at local retail pharmacies so everyone who can should get their flu shot.
TC: How is coronavirus transmitted?
Holly Smith: With this new strain, the specific transmission path hasn’t been identified, but typical coronaviruses spread just like a cold — through respiratory droplets produced by coughing and sneezing. You can surmise it also can be spread through close personal contact such as touching someone, shaking hands or touching an object that has the virus on it and then touching your face — eyes, nose or mouth — before you wash your hands. Hand hygiene is paramount.
TC: What preventative measures can people take?
Holly Smith: Follow the same protocol you would to avoid getting — or spreading — a cold or the flu. Cough into your elbow or a tissue, keep your hands really clean and don’t touch your face. Avoid sharing drinks, utensils, or anything with someone else’s saliva on it. It is always a good idea to get adequate rest, eat well, and stay hydrated.
TC: Do face masks provide effective protection:
Laura Polito: Not really. The problem with the common surgical mask is improper use. There can be some gaps at the sides, leaving big openings and/or not covering the nose. The most it does is prevent people from touching their mouth and nose. The mask doesn’t actually prevent the virus from getting through. It can penetrate the material, and it can sneak in through those gaps at the sides.
TC: How is Student Health Service staying informed about developments related to coronavirus?
Ali Javanbakht: Student Health has been actively monitoring the situation and we work in close collaboration with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. If they identify an individual diagnosed or being tested for 2019-nCoV, we would coordinate to notify directly any of our students who would be at risk.
Typically, people will be notified by a public health agency before they even realize they were near someone who might have been sick. If you haven’t heard from us, that’s a good sign.
TC: Where can members of the campus community find the most up-to-date information about coronavirus?
Laura Polito: A wealth of information is available from the Centers for Disease Control, the California Department of Public Health and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. Questions can be submitted to: http://studenthealth.sa.ucsb.edu/contact-us/ask-a-question