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How to protect yourself from coronavirus

Basic hygiene is the best thing you can do, according to a doctor of infectious diseases.

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The coronavirus was first detected in Jan. 1, just weeks before the busy Chinese Lunar New Year.

Betsy Joles/Getty

As the respiratory illness coronavirus is quickly spreading through its origin country of China, fear is spreading just as quickly over the web and through social media. With five confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US (as of Tuesday, Jan. 28), we wanted to explore how likely it is for Americans -- especially those who have not recently traveled to China -- to contract the new strain of coronavirus, 2019 Novel Coronavirus, aka 2019-nCoV.

With the help of Dr. Tom Moorcroft, an osteopathic physician focused on infectious disease, we discuss the current risk of becoming infected with coronavirus, how to protect yourself and how to stay informed. 

How likely are you to get the coronavirus? 

Right now, the risk is low for Americans, Moorcroft tells CNET. "We don't want to blow it off and not be concerned," he says, "but there's no need for mass hysteria because it's such a low risk at the moment." 

As of February 5, there are 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US, in California, Washington, Illinois, New York and Arizona. All of these patients had recently traveled to Wuhan, China, the origin of the outbreak, and they have all been hospitalized. There are currently 76 pending cases, where the patients are waiting for test results to determine if they have the virus or not.

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted that the risk of coronavirus in the US is low and that 2019-nCoV is not spreading in the US at the moment. During a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefing on Wednesday, February 5, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said that the risk of contracting the virus in the US is low and she does not see a need for the general public in the US to purchase face masks to protect themselves.

"Five controlled cases compared to the population of the US is really not a threat," Moorcroft says. "Even if you accounted for the 70-something cases still pending, that is a small number overall." At the time of this writing, there are currently 92 pending cases in the US. Moorcroft provided his thoughts when that number was lower.

Should Americans be worried about the coronavirus?

According to Moorcroft, "This isn't something you should lose sleep over right now." 

There is no confirmed human-to-human transmission in the US, and the CDC and World Health Organization are working tirelessly to ensure it stays that way. The investigation and protection efforts are full-force, from airport entry screenings and travel restrictions to keeping patients in isolation

Combined with Wuhan's quarantine of its nearly 11 million citizens, the risk to people in the US remains low. 

"Don't roll the dice just because you live in the US," said Moorcroft. "Could [coronavirus] spread here? Yes, absolutely. Stay aware. But right now there are only five confirmed cases in the US and we have infectious control here." 

How to protect yourself from the coronavirus

For now, just stick to the basics, Moorcroft says. 

The coronavirus is spread through respiratory vapor, such as when someone sneezes or coughs into the air around you. Influenza viruses and common cold viruses are also spread this way. 

"The things you should do to protect yourself from the coronavirus are things you should do every day," he points out. "The No. 1 thing you can do to prevent any respiratory illness is to practice good personal hygiene."

Moorcroft also reiterates the CDC's advice for avoiding coronavirus (and other respiratory diseases): 

  • Wash your hands with soap or use a hand sanitizer that contains alcohol.
  • Sneeze and cough into tissues or the crook of your elbow. If you get snot or spit on your skin, clean it off right away. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially people exhibiting respiratory symptoms and fever.
  • Stay home when you're sick.
  • Regularly and thoroughly clean surfaces, such as counter tops and doorknobs, with a disinfectant. 

Again, these are all basic protections that should be normal, everyday things. Moorcroft believes that extra protections, like wearing medical masks, aren't really necessary at this point, unless you have the virus or are being investigated for it

"I'm traveling to LA this weekend and haven't even thought about wearing a mask," he says. "As long as people aren't sneezing, coughing or otherwise depositing their respiratory excretions on you, you should be fine." 

On top of basic illness prevention, Moorcroft says the best (and only real) defense against disease is a strong immune system. Your body is better able to fight off illnesses when your immune system is really humming, he explains, and everyone should put in an effort to get theirs into tip-top shape. To do so, get enough quality sleep at night, stay hydrated, minimize overly processed foods and get enough micronutrients in your diet. 

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An Indonesian health official checks the temperature of a passenger upon his arrival.

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How can I protect myself while traveling?

The CDC has recommended that everyone avoid nonessential travel to China and Chinese officials have closed travel to and from Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province. 

If you must travel to China, the CDC encourages you first to discuss it with your doctor, avoid other people who are sick and avoid animals and animal markets.

If you're traveling anywhere, you should practice basic hygiene that can help keep you from getting sick on planes.

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Stay informed

Even though the risk is low right now, Moorcroft encourages everyone to stay armed with the facts. You shouldn't discount or disregard the virus completely just because you live in the US, but don't get overly stressed or anxious about it either. 

And if you really want to know what's going on, Moorcroft recommends monitoring the CDC website, where officials regularly post updates on coronavirus happenings. It's easy to get swept up in the ever-increasing amount of information available online, as well as the fear factor and misinformation from social media, and your best bet is to get your information from the actual health organizations that are investigating the issue firsthand. 

"I hope that people will feel empowered by knowing the facts," Moorcroft says, "and say, 'I have access to the information, I know how to take care of my body and I can keep myself safe.'" 

Editor's note, February 5, 2020: This article was originally published on January 28, 2020 and has been updated with new information from the CDC about the number of cases in the US.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.