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With the recent outbreak in China, you may be hearing a lot about the novel coronavirus strain. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can protect yourself.

A new respiratory illness caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus strain (named 2019-nCoV) has been making a lot of headlines recently. This new strain of the common coronavirus has been detected in Wuhan, China and has since expanded to other countries, with a small number of cases now confirmed in the United States. So far, the vast majority of cases have been associated with people who recently returned from travel to Wuhan, China.

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of common viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from a common cold to a severe lower respiratory tract infection. 

“As with other novel viruses identified in the past (like SARS), it’s understandable that this is a public health concern,” says Dr. Stanley Martin, director of infectious diseases at Geisinger. “The 2019 novel coronavirus strain is not only causing an upper respiratory tract infection, but a lower respiratory tract infection, which can lead to pneumonia and breathing issues.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those infected with the new coronavirus strain are showing a range of reactions, from few to no symptoms to severe respiratory illness and, in some cases (about two percent of them), it has been fatal. Symptoms of the new coronavirus strain include a fever, sore throat, shortness of breath and cough.

“The CDC believes the symptoms can appear as early as two days and maybe as late as 14 days after a person is exposed,” adds Dr. Martin.

Since early reports of the outbreak, the CDC has been closely monitoring confirmed cases of the new coronavirus strain in China and other countries, including the United States. 

Here’s what you need to know:

You’re more likely to catch the flu

In fact, the flu (influenza virus) is of greater concern right now. The CDC recently reported the flu has caused somewhere between 10,000 to 30,000 deaths in the U.S. this season, compared to the zero deaths caused by the novel coronavirus strain. So far, the majority of deaths related to the novel coronavirus strain have occurred in China.

So, if you haven’t received your flu shot, it’s not too late. Still need to get one? It’s easier than ever at Geisinger. Here’s how.

Cases have been confirmed in the U.S.

For now, people should only be concerned about the novel coronavirus strain if they’ve recently traveled to China or have had contact with someone who recently traveled to the country. 

“We know that it’s spreading from person-to-person easily in China, but a majority of cases in the U.S. are patients who have traveled recently,” says Dr. Martin. “Like most respiratory viruses, it’s mainly spread via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”

You can protect yourself

Similar to the flu, the best way to protect yourself from the novel coronavirus strain is through common prevention measures. Here are some tips to keep you and your loved ones safe:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
  • Refrain from touching your face or eyes
  • Stay home if you’re not feeling well

And if you’ve recently traveled to China, and feel ill with a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, contact your primary care doctor or closest urgent care clinic to help you determine the best course of action.

We are prepared

Teams at Geisinger are receiving updates daily and have procedures in place should a patient present with symptoms.

“We’re prepared should cases arise locally,” says Dr. Martin. “All testing for the novel coronavirus strain is being conducted through the CDC, but we are able to collect the specimen and ship it there.”

What should you do now?

Currently, the CDC is recommending people avoid non-essential travel to China. “The hope now is to contain the outbreak and develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus strain in the coming months,” says Dr. Martin.

While the novel strain of coronavirus is nothing to ignore, your best defense again it is to follow the same preventive measures you’d take to ward off the flu this season.

For the most up-to-date information on the novel coronavirus strain, visit the CDC and Department of Health (DOH) websites.

Next steps:

Find a primary care provider
Find an urgent care clinic near you