Judging from my inbox and the daily requests for advice I’m now getting from co-workers and friends, it’s safe to say that many people are wondering about how the coronavirus should affect their immediate plans—and the somber truth is that it should affect them a lot.
Companies and governments across the world have started to tell their employees to work from home and to cancel their large public events, from Google’s I/O developers conference in May to Ireland’s official St. Patrick’s Day festivities next week. And in the U.S., states such as New York and New Jersey are asking schools to shut down, at least temporarily, if a student is suspected of having COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.
The outbreak has reached more than 110 countries, with 113,000 documented cases and 4,000 deaths counting. Most of these countries outside of China have not experienced large sustained outbreaks yet, and some may be able to contain their respective situation. But the prognosis overall still remains grim, and we’re likely to be fighting this pandemic for months at the very least before things can be under control.
In the U.S., the prospects are even more unclear because we still don’t have the large number of tests that are needed to screen the population en masse as countries like South Korea have done. As a result, the 607 cases reported in the U.S. as Monday afternoon are almost certainly an underestimate of the problem. But even this incomplete picture is dire.
So far, 19 states have documented cases of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people, especially younger children, experience a mild to moderate respiratory illness. But even if you don’t become deadly ill with the virus, you can still spread it to others at a much higher risk of serious complications and death, such as elderly people and those with a compromised immune system. In Washington State, for instance, a local outbreak at a nursing home in King County has killed at least 15 people.
Without having a baseline rate of cases, we can’t know whether it’s even possible to contain these local outbreaks. But it’s likely already too late. And that means it’s more important than ever to delay the spread of COVID-19 within our neighborhoods as much as possible.
So yes, if there are large public gatherings or things coming up in your life that require you to travel in crowds, you should look into rescheduling or canceling them for the time being, especially if they’re happening in one of the states or cities where the virus has been spotted—and especially if you’re coming down with a cold (if that cold is getting worse, though, you should seek medical care).
That list of skippable or replanned things can include vacations, conventions, or father-daughter dances. But it might also extend to important but non-essential plans like your annual physical. Doctors and hospitals will be facing a heavy strain in the weeks to come, as potential cases of COVID-19 come in. And more practically, spending time around people more likely to be sick is a risky move. If you’re worried about whether it’s right to cancel that physical or non-essential medical procedure, you can always touch base with your doctor’s office beforehand.
Of course, there are many of us who don’t have a choice in taking the subway or spending time around crowds to make a living—people who tend to have little wealth or the resources needed to afford good health care. Pandemics happen because we’ve made it possible to live close to one another in a giant, globe-spanning society, and so often, these natural disasters lay bare the cracks of that society.
If you do have to spend time in groups, you can take some comfort that the outbreak is largely spreading from people already visibly sick, not those asymptomatic. And you can still try to reduce your risk of catching or spreading the coronavirus. You can stand at least six feet away from people (the virus is unlikely to travel that far from the droplets an infected person breathes out); practice good hand hygiene, disinfect widely used surfaces you’re around, and avoid touching your face as much as possible.