You Asked: How Worried Should I Be About Coronavirus?

Mar 11, 2020

UPDATE: As the case count continues to rise, information on this story is moving quickly and may be out-of-date. We recommend checking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for ways to stay safe and this John Hopkins tool for the most recent data

Coronavirus cases are rising and we found many of you -- our listeners and readers -- have questions that go beyond the number of people infected with COVID-19. Questions that are tricky and complicated. Side Effects and Indiana Public Broadcasting are working to find answers, so we turned to Kara Cecil, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Indianapolis.

Why are kids less impacted by this disease? Will closing schools actually make a difference? 

Cecil says -- no surprise -- kids are generally healthier than adults. They're not immune to COVID-19, but if they do become infected they're more likely to have a mild case.

Why? One important reason is they are typically not impacted by the same underlying and chronic health conditions adults face. Cecil says people with compromised respiratory systems, diabetes and heart disease tend to have more complications with coronavirus. 

Is closing schools an overreaction or will it help prevent the spread of the virus?

In the Indianapolis area, Avon Community Schools Corp. closed its schools and pivoted to online learning after a confirmed case. Many colleges and universities in the Midwest, including Purdue and Ohio State, also are ending in-person classes, and moving to online learning. 

On one hand, Cecil says schools are exercising an abundance of caution to keep students and faculty safe. Schools are often prepared for unexpected closings, like snow days, so this fits into those plans. 

And while children’s cases of COVID-19 tend to be mild, they could transmit this disease to staff, parents and grandparents or others who might experience more severe symptoms. 

"Adults are more likely to have those chronic conditions that actually puts the adults in those buildings at greater risk than the kids," Cecil says. Even if students don't go to school, they're recommended to practice “social distance” and stay away from gatherings and classmates. 

On the other hand, closing schools can cause hardships for families. Parents are forced to find last-minute childcare plans and keep kids focused on school while at home. 

But with many schools preparing for spring break, Cecil says this planned vacation may be helpful in itself. 

Should I skip the concert or party? Should I cancel my trip? 

Cecil’s basic advice: If you wouldn’t skip domestic travel for flu season, don’t skip it for coronavirus.

“I go back to: This is nowhere near as bad as seasonal flu,” she says. 

However, Cecil notes there are exceptions. The federal government has recommended against cruise ship travel, because there have been two high-profile cases of COVID-19 quickly spreading on cruises. 

And Cecil says international travel is a different story. 

There are four countries -- China, Italy, Iran and South Korea -- listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “level 3.” These are countries that have widespread community transmission of coronavirus, and the CDC says returning to the U.S. from one of these places may require a two-week quarantine.

“If you have an international trip planned to one of those higher risk countries, those I would cancel,” Cecil says. 

How worried should I be?

How old are you? Do you have underlying health conditions? Are you traveling back from a place with a high number of cases? The CDC recommends preparing for this disease to spread, but not panicking. 

Cecil says to practice good hand hygiene. And abide by the same information used during flu season: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and stay home if you feel sick. 

“I think that the greater concern here is for people to overreact,” Cecil says. 

This includes purchasing medical supplies that nurses, doctors and hospital staff will need. Health officials have recommended having a one-month supply of medications on hand along with two weeks of food. This is mainly to avoid contact with other people if you do become sick.

“If your a medical provider tells you to put [a mask] on, follow those directions,” Cecil says. “If not, you don't need it.”

And don't raid grocery stores of water, toilet paper and paper towels, she says. 

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health. Throughout the year, Side Effects will work closely with Indiana Public Broadcasting and WFYI to ask Americans about health issues, as part of the America Amplified: Election 2020 initiative. To join our texting group, text elections to 73224; we'll send questions each month and use your answers to inform our reporting. To contact us directly with a question, email health@wfyi.org 

America Amplified: Election 2020 is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. America Amplified is using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. Follow America Amplified on Twitter at @amplified2020.