Whenever news media starts declaring states of emergency and uttering words like “pandemic,” people understandably start to panic. Keep in mind that the news media’s job is to keep you informed about global events, but it’s also their job to get your attention and sell ad space. Panic sells. But if you don’t let fear run through you in a healthy way and you get stuck in cycling anxiety, fear, and panic, it puts your nervous system into stress response, disables your body’s self-healing mechanisms, and actually makes you more susceptible to things like viruses.
Keep in mind that this is a coronavirus, not the ebola virus. The likelihood of dying of this illness, even in the rare instance that you get infected with it, is extremely low. While deaths are happening and that can feel scary, far more deaths happen every year from the typical flu virus (about 291,000 to 646,000 deaths worldwide and causes 12,000- 61,000 deaths in the U.S. per year.) If you do get infected, the most likely outcome is that you’ll be quarantined while you experience a mild cold or flu-like illness and recover completely.
So . . . now that your nervous system has hopefully relaxed a bit, how can you keep yourself safe from coronavirus? I’m going to give you 15 specific tips towards the end of this article, but in general, the best thing you can do right now is to keep your immune system functioning as it should. We are all exposed to hundreds of pathogens all the time—viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites. Exposure does not cause disease! Healthy, optimally-operating immune systems fight off viruses, even those in new outbreaks. Contracting a disease means your immune system has broken down, but keeping your immune system healthy is something you can be proactive about. We’ll talk toward the end of this article about how best to bolster your body’s natural self-healing and immune-boosting mechanisms. But let’s start by taking a deep virus-free breath so we can focus on the basics of what you need to know to be accurately informed—and stay optimally healthy—amidst all the hype.
What is coronavirus?
Coronavirus is a whole family of viruses, but the one getting all the air time is a novel (meaning new) coronavirus that has been named “SARS-CoV-2.” The disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (aka “COVID-19”). You’ve probably heard of a coronavirus before, because SARS CoV, which broke out in 2003, was also a coronavirus. The SARS epidemic came and went, causing 8000 infections, most of which did not result in death. Hopefully, the WHO and CDC’s attempts to contain this virus will effectively limit its spread.
Coronaviruses are common in many different species of animals, including cats, camels, cattle, and bats. Initial reports of infection with SARS-CoV-2 came from Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. The CDC reports that the first cases most likely were due to animal to human spread and seemed to be spreading to humans in seafood and animal markets. Now it appears that the virus is spreading between humans through respiratory spread.
What kind of disease is COVID-19, the disease this particularly coronavirus causes? Symptoms typically include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The illness can be very mild, kind of like a cold or flu, or much less commonly, it can be severe, leading to respiratory distress and possibly death. We’re in the middle of cold and flu season, so if you have cold or flu symptoms, it’s far more likely that you have the common cold (rhinovirus) or the flu (influenza virus). As they teach us in medical school, if it has hooves, assume it’s a horse, not a zebra. Right now, COVID-19 is a zebra. So don’t panic if you have the sniffles, especially if you’re in the US, where person-to-person community spread does not appear to be happening.
If I think I’ve been exposed, how long will it take before I become symptomatic?
The incubation period seems to be somewhere between 2 and 14 days, so if you haven’t become symptomatic within two weeks of possible exposure, you’re probably off the hook.
What should I do if I think I have COVID-19?
Follow CDC recommendations here.
How does the virus spread?
Although it may have begun with animal to human spread, it now seems to be spreading from person to person via respiratory droplets that are aerosolized when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Is there a vaccine or drug treatment?
Not yet. Treatment is supportive, but no pharmaceutical cure or preventive vaccine exists right now.
How bad is this outbreak?
Numbers are changing rapidly, but as of writing this blog, the CDC reports that there have been 76,936 cases in mainland China and 1875 cases outside mainland China. So far, 14 cases have been diagnosed in the United States. Other US cases were contracted outside US borders, making a total of 60 cases in the US. No US deaths have occurred so far.
A new case just reported in Northern California has been diagnosed in someone who does not seem to have traveled or been exposed to an infected person, making this the first known case of community spread happening inside the US. The CDC is working hard to contain any further spread.
Who is at greatest risk?
Those who traveled to mainstream China or were exposed to someone who recently traveled there and got infected are at greatest risk. In general, as with the flu, people whose immune systems are compromised are at the greatest risk. If your immune system is in good shape, your risk of contracting COVID-19 is extremely low. According to the CDC, “For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”
What is a pandemic, and does COVID-19 qualify?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a pandemic as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” It also has to be deemed to be out of control and causing significant damage. So far, the virus has been detected in 29 countries and been responsible for approximately 2700 deaths, giving it a 2.3% death rate according to the Journal of the American Medical Association study. But according to the WHO, it’s not yet a pandemic. The WHO is very conservative about giving an outbreak this label. Last time they did was for the H1N1 virus (swine flu) in 2009. So yes, it’s concerning because it appears to be spreading, it is causing some deaths, and community spread is happening. But technically, it’s not a pandemic yet.
Should I be scared of people who look Asian?
No. Please don’t stigmatize this infection and exacerbate the racism that already plagues our world. The CDC says, “People—including those of Asian descent—who have not recently traveled to China or been in contact with a person who is a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 are not at greater risk of acquiring and spreading COVID-19 than other Americans.” Please, don’t spread misinformation and make things worse.
Are there things I should buy to make sure I’m prepared?
Everyone is rushing out to buy respirator masks, but there’s a low chance that you’ll need one unless you’re planning to travel to mainstream China or South Korea, which is not recommended right now. There is, however, a small chance that you might get stuck at home if the CDC and other governing agencies determine that we need to shut down infrastructures in order to prevent widespread infection. In that case, you’ll just want to make sure you have basic preparedness- water, food, over the counter medications you normally take. It’s possible schools could close, churches, temples, businesses, and other gathering places could limit gatherings, and you might wind up with the kids at home, doing as much of your work remotely as is possible. This has happened only very rarely in the history of disease outbreaks.
What can I do to avoid infection?
EXTERNAL PREVENTION: Let’s start with the external things you would normally do to protect yourself (and others) from any virus that is spread by respiratory means.
1. Minimize close contact with people who are sick.
2. Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible and wash your hands frequently, especially when you’re out and about
3. Stay inside and don’t go out if you’re sick with cold or flu-like symptoms.
4. Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and dispose of tissues properly.
5. Although we don’t know if this virus lives on surfaces for long, be mindful about cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that could have been infected with an environmentally friendly cleaning spray.
6. The CDC and WHO do not recommend face masks for anyone other than health care workers caring for those with known infection, but celebrities like Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow are posting on Instagram wearing face masks during plane flights, so people might get the idea that this is what’s recommended. If you insist on wearing a face mask, the N95 respirator mask is the one to wear. But be careful. Greedy people are price gouging and feeding off mass hysteria.
HOLISTIC PREVENTION: From a holistic health point of view, what else might you do to improve your chances of staying safe during a viral outbreak?
7. Consider immune-boosting supplements, like 10 Mushroom formula.
8. Make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D.
10. Eat a healthy, balanced diet with lots of organic plants. Limit sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods.
11. Add green juice to your diet.
INTERNAL PROTECTION: Okay, now that we’ve covered the obvious, what else can you do to treat the mind-body-heart-spirit connection?
12. Deal with any panic you might feel in an emotionally healthy way, allowing yourself to move through the emotion without getting stuck in it. I’m in love with the way Karla McLaren teaches us to find the gifts in our emotions. Here’s what you can do if you’re feeling panicky.
13. Induce relaxation responses. Meditate. Pray. Dance. Chant. Make art. Have great sex. Do yoga. Get out in nature. Stay away from the news. You know what relaxes you! Calming your nervous system and helping it reset to relaxation response will give your immune system a boost and optimize your chance to fight off any infection, should you be exposed to it.
14. Connect with loved ones. Love heals. Assuming they’re not sick, surround yourself with people you love and trust and enjoy the boost of endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and other healing hormones that can help you fend off viruses naturally.
15. Ask for help from whatever invisible support resonates with you. My favorite prayer, which I learned from my mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, is “Let us pray for that which is most right.” This humility-inducing prayer reminds us that what is most right for the highest good of all is a mystery to our cute little pea brains. It’s tempting to pray for what we want, but this humble act of deep surrender not only relaxes the nervous system, it allows us to rest in trust. When we can trust that whatever is most right shall come to pass, we can let go of the desperate attempt to control life with a death grip. Paradoxically, this might even help us fight off disease.
If you’re a helping professional, we’re still enrolling for the 2020 class of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, where we train healing professionals in mind-body-heart-spirit medicine and help them help others when they may be suffering. We’re all for getting conventional medical help when it works! But our graduates have also been trained in a variety of methods that help patients when conventional medicine has little to offer, as with COVID-19. Learn more here.
May you be well,
Lissa Rankin, MD