Delia Heck

Delia Heck, a professor Ferrum College.

State officials and at least one academic group are watching closely the spread of the coronavirus, which has caused international concern with thousands of deaths and even as of Monday sent the stock market plummeting.

With seven known strains, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can infect humans or animals. The most recent discovery, 2019-nCoV (also called COVID-19), is a new coronavirus discovered in China.

The virus is known to begin like a lot of other less severe strains with a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat and fever, perhaps even similar to the common cold. But coronaviruses can lead to more severe infections such as pneumonia, kidney failure or death. As is the case with many viruses, possible risk factors for progressing to severe illness target the elderly population and people with underlying chronic medical conditions.

The mortality rate of the new coronavirus strain is not yet known, but the World Health Organization reported that as of Feb. 18, 73,332 cases were confirmed, and 99% of those cases were in China. There also had been 1,873 deaths. The White House has asked Congress for some $1.8 billion to fight the disease.

On Tuesday a top official for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention following a briefing for Congress said that it is inevitable that the disease will spread in the United States.

"Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in the United States," Nancy Messonnier told reporters. "It's not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses."

Those are reasons that the coronavirus is being watched closely in Virginia, and State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake of the Virginia Heath Department seeks to assure residents that necessary precautions are being taken.

“Local health departments are working with anyone who was in China in the past 14 days, regardless of where they reside in Virginia,” Peake said. “This allows us to quickly identify anyone who may develop symptoms, so we can ensure they are assessed.”

Peake noted that COVID-19 has not been spreading in the United States, but she urged anyone who had close contact in the previous 14 days with a patient confirmed to have the virus – and who also develops a fever or symptoms of lower respiratory illness – to visit his or her doctor for an assessment.

Also, anyone who traveled to China, especially the Hubei province, in the previous 14 days and develops a fever or symptoms of a lower respiratory illness should contact his or her doctor for an assessment. Special laboratory tests for respiratory or blood samples are needed to diagnose a coronavirus infection.

A Chinese-American woman returned to her home in Danville earlier this month and quarantined herself with the help of her fellow church members at Covenant Reformed Baptist Church in Providence, N.C. She had not shown any symptoms.

There are no specific antiviral treatments for COVID-19, but seeking supportive care may help to alleviate symptoms and stop the spread of the disease.

Watching keenly developments of the new strain is a group of students at Ferrum College who are in the One Health program, which focuses on the intersection of human, animal and environmental health. The program also studies how illnesses affect the global economy and the political impact outbreaks like COVID-19 can have.

Ferrum College began the One Health program in the fall of 2019, one of 10 such programs in the U.S., according to a 2016 study in the One Health Journal: Infection, Ecology and Epidemiology and a paper published in 2018.

“One Health students begin by learning how human health is impacted by the interaction of the aspects of our world such as air, water, animals, plants, foods and soil. In order to prevent further outbreaks, we must understand how individual systems operate and the interconnections between those systems,” said Delia Heck, a professor of environmental science, natural science division chair and environmental science and environmental studies program coordinator at Ferrum. “One Health students study aspects such as disease pathways, pathogens, risk management, human systems, animal systems and soil, plant and animal-based food health. They then work in teams to determine solutions to problems that might arise within those systems. As part of their capstone project, they must focus on a particular One Health issue and write an in-depth research paper on it.”

Students in the program specifically are watching for the potential of an outbreak of COVID-19 in Virginia.

“Students are watching global patterns and turning to the CDC, WHO and VDH to learn how these agencies are responding to the pandemic,” Heck said. “They will study the research which will emerge from this event to learn how processes can be improved, what vaccines might be developed and how future outbreaks might be prevented or the impacts lessened.”

Peake said she wanted to remind the public that, in the U.S., the flu is a much greater threat. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 29 million people have gotten sick with the flu this season. Some 280,000 have been hospitalized, and 16,000 have died.

“The immediate risk of this new virus to the American public is believed to be low at this time,” Peake said. “It’s currently flu and respiratory disease season and VDH recommends getting a flu vaccine, taking everyday preventive actions to help stop the spread of germs and taking flu antivirals if prescribed.”

She noted precautions include washing hands thoroughly, covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly the name of the state official who discussed the virus.

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