The first presumptive positive cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in the United States and Canada, but how much of a threat is the new virus?
The World Health Organization stopped short of calling it a global health emergency last week.
Nevertheless, experts stress the need to be vigilant and prepared for signs of infection. Here are key things to know:
What is it?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that most often cause mild-to-moderate upper respiratory tract illnesses including the common cold, but they can also lead to severe diseases. Some coronaviruses spread between animals, some pass between animals and people, and others go from people to people.
This new virus is different from the coronaviruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
What are common symptoms?
This new virus has non-specific symptoms including fever, cough and difficulty breathing.
Typically, coronavirus infections manifest as the common cold. Symptoms can include runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat and fever. Young babies may contract gastrointestinal disease.
Severe cases involve pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.
What should I do if I suspect infection?
Consult your health care provider as soon as possible if you are worried about symptoms or have travelled to a region where severe coronaviruses are known to occur.
If you have mild cold-like symptoms, health officials encourage you to stay home while sick and avoid close contact to help protect others. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and be sure to throw used tissues in the trash and wash your hands. Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces.
Do masks help?
In a hospital setting, absolutely. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at the Toronto General Hospital, says proper equipment is an essential part of all infection protection and control measures among staff at health-care facilities. Masks, coupled with proper gowns, gloves and treatment rooms, help limit the spread of an airborne illness within a hospital setting and go a long way towards ensuring the virus does not follow uninfected patients home. At a Sunday afternoon news conference, staff at the Toronto hospital where a Canadian patient is being treated said the facility is following all possible protection protocols and remains safe for all patients.
Does this mean I should run out and buy a mask?
No. Bogoch said the benefits of proper masks worn by hospital staff are largely lost when applied to the sort widely available for purchase at local drug stores. Bogoch said such masks may offer an additional layer of protection if worn by someone who is already infected, but has more limited value for healthy members of the public.
"Is it time to start wearing masks in public places in Toronto? Absolutely not," Bogoch said, referencing the city where the first Canadian coronavirus case was diagnosed and treated.
Dr. Sohail Ghandi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, agrees, noting early data on the new form of virus suggests masks won't be especially effective.
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So is there anything I can do to protect myself?
Ghandi says that while masks may have helped ward off the spread of SARS during the deadly 2003 outbreak, preliminary research indicates the same won't be true of the current virus.
"Handwashing is more effective than face masks with this particular virus, particularly if you're not infected," he said.
Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa echoed a call for increased handwashing, but noted that the arrival of coronavirus is not the main reason behind the advice. Both she and Bogoch said washing hands with soap and water, plus limiting contact with one's face, makes sense during the Canadian flu season currently in full swing.
De Villa also urged one other measure known to limit the spread of all airborne diseases.
“We do encourage people that when they’re sick with a respiratory illness, best to stay home and limit transmission,” she said. “It also gives one a chance to recover.”