All schools in Ohio are now closed. Professional sports have shut down. Grocery stores are bereft of essential goods including toilet paper and many cleaning products. The stock market is in upheaval. People have been ordered home from work for weeks, and colleges have closed their entire campuses. Our nation is in a state of flux, and this is all due to a little contagious virus that started in China and is part of a family of contagions that also share their name with a beer.
As you no doubt know, I’m talking about what the media has referred to as coronavurus. Health officials have labeled the virus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) and the disease caused by the virus is COVID-19 (Corona Viral Disease-2019). The virus itself is little more than some RNA, lipid and spiked proteins around the lipid. Humans have some particular receptor cells near the back of our nasal passageways and throats that are particularly susceptible to viral infections. They are even more susceptible when dried out (not covered in mucus). When the virus gets to these cells, the spiked proteins can pierce the cell wall and inject the RNA material into the cell. The virus will hijack the cell turning it into a virus factory that manufactures more and more viruses.
As copies of the virus are made they eventually burst out of the infected cell, oftentimes killing the infected cell, and subsequently infecting nearby cells turning them into virus factories. The infection then spreads from the throat down the bronchial tubes and eventually reaches the lungs. Once in the lungs, the virus can damage our alveoli (the little air sacs in the lungs that allow for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. It can also cause inflammation and swelling which can make breathing difficult.
As a defense, mucus production in the lungs increases, but this mucus can cause a fluid build-up in the lungs and this fluid along with the accumulation of dead cells from the viral infection creates a problematic situation inside the lung. This can create an environment that can allow for a secondary bacterial infection to arise in the lungs, and it can also lead to pneumonia. Even without a secondary infection that fluid build-up and impaired oxygen flow can become severe enough to require a ventilator to assist with breathing, and in certain cases, especially with elderly patients, it will cause death.
This particular virus also seems able to infect our digestive system, but those symptoms are typically mild and include digestive pain, bloating and diarrhea. However, by also being able to infect the digestive system, the virus becomes more contagious because it is present in fecal matter. Individuals who show no signs of respiratory illness, but do have an infected digestive system can spread the disease if they fail to wash their hands after using the restroom. The virus can remain viable on a dry surface for as little as a few minutes and as long as nine hours depending on the type of surface and how quickly the lipid and proteins break down. It can remain viable in moisture for extended periods that last as long as weeks.
The virus appears to be most easily transmitted through the air and also by secondary transfer through contaminated surfaces. It has been theorized that that virus will become less contagious in the summer months because it is transmitted similarly to many other known viruses such as influenza. In the summer months, people gather in enclosed spaces less frequently and are more often together out of doors. Humid air decreases the chances of airborne transmission such as a cough because the virus collects moisture from the air around it and will fall to the ground more quickly. In dry, cool, winter air, the virus remains suspended in the air for a longer period after an infected person exhales or coughs the virus out. Additionally, humans tend to have more mucus in thier nasal passageways and throats in the summer months, and this can create a barrier and prevent the virus from infecting us.
No, this is not the first pandemic, nor will it be the last. Yes, the world has faced worse disease outbreaks than this. The Spanish flu killed between 20 and 50 million people. The Black Plague killed more than one-third of all people in Europe. Even still, the mortality rate for this virus is very high when compared to most other common viruses. Influenza has a mortality rate of about 0.1 person and even still approximately 18,000 Americans have died from the flu since October 2019. Assuming the above numbers are accurate, if the same number of people were infected with this virus as were infected with the flu, then we could expect 360,000 deaths from this virus in a five-month span. That’s one-tenth of a percent of our nation’s population gone in less than half a year.
Make no mistake, a vaccine will be created. The mortality rate will then decline, and this virus will likely become as lethal as the flu is now. In the meantime, please wash your hands.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.