As a doctor specializing in infectious diseases at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital, Paul Eder works with hospitals to advise on diagnoses and the best course of action for medical offices to take. But throughout the past few weeks, amidst the spread of a new strain of coronavirus that has made its way to the United States, he’s found himself offering lots of informal advice.
“Everybody is calling me,” Eder says. “People stop me in the hall. I had a doctor who’s going to Iceland in a week call me and ask if it was OK. I told him to wipe down the plane seat and tabletop to be safe. Hopefully I’m a resource for people and can give them reassurance.”
The fervor surrounding coronavirus has reached a fever pitch in the last week, now that cases have been reported on both coasts. On Thursday evening, Governor Larry Hogan's office confirmed the first three cases in Maryland. All three are from Montgomery County and contracted the virus while traveling abroad.
Additionally, three students at Baltimore all-girls Jewish school Bnos Yisroel were sent home this week for having potential indirect contact with a New Yorker suffering from the virus.
As for preventative measures to ensure a clean bill of health, Eder reiterated the suggestions that have been expressed widely—following basic hygiene, washing your hands throughout the day, and covering your mouth when you cough.
Though, at the moment, coronavirus isn’t as widespread in the United States as it is in other countries, there is a prevailing sense of foreboding surrounding just how worried people should be.
In a recent Atlantic report, Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch suggested that 40 to 70 percent of the world population are more likely than not to get the virus in the coming year, though he noted that the majority of cases could be asymptomatic or pass without medical interference in people without chronic health problems.
But that doesn’t mean that those in positions to combat the virus aren’t being vigilant in their efforts to prevent its spread.
“We’re proceeding as if there’s going to be [a confirmed case in Maryland],” Dr. Gabor Kelen, the director of Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR), told us earlier this week. “Because this coronavirus has had such a high profile, there’s this other contagion going around—fear. Everybody is so afraid of this thing.”
However, Kelen is quick to put the virus in perspective, especially in comparing it to the “ubiquitous” nature of influenza, which tens of thousands of Americans die from every year. He speculates that, part of the reason why coronavirus has become top of mind is because of its newness. Adding to the concern is the fact that there is currently no vaccine for the virus, and Hopkins doctors suggest it could take 12 to 18 months for one to be fully developed.
“We don't announce every death due to influenza,” Kelen notes. “We just live with it. “But because this is new and there’s no vaccine, we get very bent out of shape.”
Before the first three local cases were confirmed, Kelen said that, if and when someone tested positive for the virus in Maryland, he and his office would have the informal channels in place to learn about it in around an hour’s time.
With an illness as wide as coronavirus, there is a network of hundreds who are involved in the planning and execution of communication efforts and strategy to ensure proper steps are taken. Johns Hopkins is also developing its own test kits for the virus as government institutions work to disseminate them to state labs.
“In an instance like this, you have to be forthright,” Kelen says. “One of the interesting issues about messaging is if you communicate too much, then you start to become ignored, and if you don’t communicate enough, then people are wondering what you’re doing. It’s a fine line.”
As for the local government response, Maryland governor Larry Hogan has requested the authority from the state legislature to transfer $50 million from the state’s rainy day fund to support efforts to combat the virus. He has also submitted a supplemental budget that earmarks $10 million for coronavirus preparedness expenses.
“If the money is used for better planning or extra testing sites instead of sites being inundated, that would be terrific,” Kelen says. “If it’s used for sheltering strategies or helping patients who are sick but don’t really need big-deal hospitalizations, that could be tremendously helpful.”
It’s this period that is perhaps the most important locally and nationally when it comes to containing the virus. If efforts are taken now to limit the its ability to spread, ideally, hospitals won’t have a lot of work to do in the coming months when it comes to treatment.
“There’s a special way to deal with a special crisis like this,” Kelen says. “We’re just going to soldier on.”