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What you need to know about COVID-19

Here’s a summary of what we know, and don’t know, about COVID-19.

3D print of a SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—virus particle. The virus surface (blue) is covered with spike proteins (red) that enable the virus to enter and infect human cells. (Submitted / National Institutes of Health)
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What is it?

COVID-19, the name applied to the disease as of Feb. 11 by the World Health Organization, is an acronym: "CO" for "corona," "VI" for "virus," "D" for "disease" and "19" for "2019," the year in which it was identified (although not until very late in 2019).

Coronaviruses commonly circulate among humans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Population, and cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold.

COVID-19 is a new and more severe form of coronavirus, first identified in Wuhan, China, and is believed to originally have been transmitted from animals to humans.

What are the symptoms, and how do they differ from cold and flu symptoms?

Symptoms are similar to influenza symptoms, said Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke’s Infectious Disease Associates. Fever, muscle aches and coughs all are early signs. But you can’t have COVID-19 unless you’re around someone who has it.

So far, no one has been confirmed with COVID-19 in Minnesota — although one case is being tested, according to Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director for the Minnesota Department of Health.


One case has been confirmed in Wisconsin, but that individual is in isolation, said Chuck Warzecha, deputy administrator of the Division of Public Health. So if you haven’t traveled to where there are cases, you don’t have it.

What is the fatality rate?

During a news conference Thursday, Dr. Ruth Lynfield, Minnesota state epidemiologist, cited data from the Journal of the American Medical Association reporting an overall fatality rate of 2.3% in China. In comparison, she said, the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 had a fatality rate of 0.1% The 1918 flu pandemic had a fatality rate around 2.5%.

Most of the cases in China hit people between ages of 30 and 79, Lynfield said. She also noted that the fatality rate from COVID-19 has been much higher for people in their 70s and older than for the general population.

What should I do if I think I might have COVID-19?

“It would be good to call your clinic and tell them your symptoms and concerns,” Thompson said. “We would like to know ahead of time when people are coming in with that complaint.”

If you meet CDC criteria for being at-risk for the disease, a swab can be taken to find out if you have it, but currently, it still has to be sent to the CDC to be evaluated, he said.

Depending on how ill you were, you then either would be admitted to the hospital and isolated, or sent home with instructions to isolate yourself until results were obtained.

What preventative measures can individuals take?

A vaccine for COVID-19 and antiviral drugs is months or even one or two years away, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said during Thursday’s media briefing. That means “non-pharmaceutical” measures are the only line of defense. If they sound familiar, it’s because it’s the same recipe to avoid spreading colds and flu.

From Kris Ehresmann:


  • Cough into the crook of your arm.

  • Wash your hands. “Keep in mind that good hand-washing means washing your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.”

  • Avoid touching your face.

  • Stay home if you’re sick.

Should we be more concerned about flu or coronavirus?

Flu, (properly washed) hands down.

“We’ve had one case of COVID-19 in this state,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, during Wednesday’s briefing. “The number of influenza cases is approaching 20,000 now."

As of Thursday afternoon, 15 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the United States, according to the CDC, and there had been no deaths. As of Feb. 15, the CDC estimated 280,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. for influenza, and 16,000 deaths.

Even in Minnesota, which has taken a relatively light hit from the flu, there have been 2,817 hospitalizations so far this flu season, and 67 deaths, according to the latest data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

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