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The world is watching the developments related to this new coronavirus, officially designated 2019 Novel Coronavirus or 2019-nCoV, As a nurse, you may be wondering what to tell your patients about this life-threatening virus. 

Coronaviruses are so named due to their particular shape, which is similar to a crown. They are very common; many are responsible for the upper respiratory infections from which we often suffer and treat their symptoms with rest and over the counter medications. But occasionally coronaviruses become much more serious, as in the cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)

To help you educate and prepare your patients, we’ve provided some basic information and tips to help them avoid panic and stay as healthy as possible.

By the Numbers

As of this writing, there have been 31,472 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV, according to the real-time status map from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The majority of cases have been in mainland China and surrounding Asian countries. There have been 638 deaths thus far, all of which were outside the United States. In North America, there are twelve cases confirmed in the US, five in Canada, and none in Mexico at this time. No deaths have occurred in North America.

Who is Most Susceptible?

You should be concerned about any patient who has recently traveled to China and is symptomatic. You should also be concerned about any patient who has been exposed to a lab-confirmed 2019-nCoV within fourteen days of the onset of symptoms. For any patients presenting with a fever and cough, you should obtain a detailed travel history.

As with most viruses and illnesses, the most medically fragile are those who are most at risk. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports the median age of patients is 49 to 56 years, with rare cases in children.

Do Face Masks Help?

There have been many news reports of Asian retailers of medical face masks being out of stock, as people rush to purchase them for protection. Unfortunately, these masks give a false sense of protection against the disease for healthy persons, as coronavirus is not airborne, and they do not prevent the wearer from putting their hands behind the mask to touch their face. The CDC is not currently recommending the use of facemasks for the prevention of coronavirus. However, they can be beneficial for infected persons to prevent them from coughing or sneezing into their hands and thus more readily spreading the disease.

The best prevention tactics are the very same as the CDC recommendations for the common cold, says Neha Pathak, MD:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly throughout the day.
  2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  3. Avoid contact with people who are sick.

What to Look For

Symptoms of coronavirus can appear in as few as two days or as many as fourteen after exposure to the virus, according to the CDC. Some of the most common symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. People who suspect that they may have been exposed should contact their doctor immediately.

Treatment for coronavirus is the same as for a cold- namely supportive care – rest, fluids, and over the counter medicine for sore throat and fever. But if the symptoms worsen, those individuals should contact their physician.

What About a Vaccine?

There are multiple efforts underway to create a vaccine for 2019-nCoV, however, there are none expected to be ready for deployment until approximately April of 2020. One of the potential vaccines is the previous labors to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus SARS, which was shelved before reaching clinical trials. The vaccine was shelved when SARS was defeated by improved hygiene efforts. 

The second potential vaccine is under development in Boston, an mRNA vaccine that is showing promise. The earliest trials with people show a good immune response, but the vaccine has not yet been tested in an outbreak. There are reportedly other vaccine candidates being developed as well.

For daily updates on the worldwide developments of 2019-nCoV, in addition to the real-time map from Johns Hopkins, you can follow WHO’s daily situation reports or the CDC’s Situation Summary.

Elizabeth Binsfield, BA, RN
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