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Fear of Coronavirus spreads as quickly as illness

Posted at 5:57 PM, Feb 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-21 17:57:01-05

The global death toll from the coronavirus has now topped 2,000, but that’s little compared to the flu. In the U.S. alone this season the CDC estimates at least 14,000 flu-related deaths. Still, the fear of coronavirus may be spreading faster than the virus itself.

Quarantines, lockdowns and daily death toll updates have heightened the fear of the respiratory illness.

Much of it stems from the unknown. The exact mortality rate is still a big question says Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Hospital.

“If you just have a cold you just stay home, and you never get tested. And so those people don't appear in the totals which make it look like it might be more deadly than it is” she says.

Dr. Landon says the virus is causing alarm for several reasons: Everyone is susceptible, there is no vaccine yet and it’s unclear whether antiviral medicines will be effective.

“More people that get this new coronavirus, it looks like more of them will die than the same number of people who get the influenza virus,” says Landon.

Social media misinformation, like a global air travel map that went viral – incorrectly predicting the spread of the outbreak, have not helped.

“Fear has driven the Chinese response to the crisis,” says Phillip Braun, a clinical professor of finance and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

That fear-factor he says is costing global financial markets

“For China it is going to be billions for the U.S. it's unclear yet,” explains Braun.

Suspended flights, supply chain disruptions and factory and store closures are already hurting major U.S. companies like Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Apple.

“Apple's already announced their earnings are going to be reduced because their factories in China are shut down so they're not going to have enough supply of Apple iPhones here in the states,” says Braun.

Still, public health officials like Dr. Landon are quick to point out that they are being vigilant about identifying cases, quarantining and in turn isolating the virus so it can’t reproduce.

“The only thing that's really going to protect you is if you clean your hands before you touch your face. Period,” she says.

Economists and healthcare experts agree that while there is cause for concern so far, there is not yet reason to panic.