The term “community transmission” is being used to describe what public health officials believe is the likely way a Northern California resident became infected with the COVID-19 virus this month. This description refers to the fact that the infected woman had not traveled internationally, had contact with anyone who had, or with anyone who was known to be infected with the virus. As such, it is possible that she was exposed to the virus through someone else who didn’t know they were infected. A problem with emerging infectious diseases such as that caused by the novel coronavirus, is just that – they are not known to us and the unknown inevitably can cause some to fear the worst. What will help to shed light on the situation is more information and good quality information. International data on the COVID-19 virus thus far seems to suggest that approximately 80% of people who become infected do not develop severe illness. We still have more to learn about COVID-19 and public health officials are planning to expand testing for the virus. What we do know is that COVID-19 causes respiratory illness; as with other respiratory viruses, the best prevention still relies on simple steps like covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands, staying home when sick and avoiding contact with others who are. So, yes, we should be taking this new virus seriously and taking precautions, but we also should direct our fear energy to preparedness efforts.
The media plays an important role in public health: communicating information, educating the public, serving as an avenue for discourse on a given topic. At worst, reporting by the media and particularly social media may fuel xenophobia as described in this February 3 LA Times article. While we don’t know yet the scale and magnitude of the novel coronavirus globally and in the United States, it is likely that the fear of the unknown is contributing to our perception that the risk is greater than it actually is in the US. This January 31 LA Times article nicely points out what we do know, which is that our annual influenza epidemics a.k.a. “flu seasons” are more cause for concern among Americans. The flu may be “old news”, requiring effort by public health officials to remind people every year to get the flu shot, cover coughs and sneezes, wash hands and stay home when sick.