This doesn’t mean that some people don’t become sicker — with pneumonia, for example — after contracting these coronaviruses. They do. But the rates of bad outcomes aren’t usually high enough to make the news.
The other, more worrisome, outcome would be that 2019-nCoV becomes a more significant seasonal virus, like influenza. That would be bad. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the flu has already caused up to 310,000 hospitalizations this year and 10,000 to 25,000 deaths.
Where to put the worry
Time will tell if the new coronavirus ends up being less or more dangerous than the flu; we don’t fully know yet how bad it is. Usually, the diseases that stick around tend to become less lethal. Only live hosts can continue to make more viruses. Influenza is also pretty devious in how it mutates its surface molecules from year to year to evade immune system detection. If 2019-nCoV is not able to do that, people’s immunity to it could gradually improve.
But therein lies the paradox. The outcome that has public health officials really concerned is that 2019-nCoV will turn into something like a disease that we have a tough time making you worry about right now.
Every year physicians and public health officials try to get you to immunize yourselves against the flu, and far too many of you don’t. We beg you to practice proper precautions and hygiene — and, still, tens of thousands of people die, and too few worry enough.
Governments and employers could help by making it easier for sick people to stay home from work. Many Americans without paid sick leave go to work despite feeling ill, and many of those work at restaurants, schools and hospitals, where disease is easily spread.
The most significant defense the United States has to prevent pandemics is a solid public health infrastructure. The public has to trust it. The system also needs to be properly prepared and have the resources to handle a widespread infection. (The system is currently stretched thin and underfunded.) It’s critical to make sure there are enough medical supplies available, as well as necessities like food, to get a community through an outbreak.
Should you be worried about getting infected with viruses? Sure. Have you gotten a flu shot yet?
Channel your fears into productive behaviors. That’s how you’ll significantly reduce your risk from being infected with 2019-nCoV. It’ll also help you from being infected with the flu. It’ll even help protect you from getting a cold. Wins all around.