We’re seeing a lot of conflicting information and fear mongering in the media about the COVID-19 coronavirus. This article is intended to inform our readers of facts and provide an educated response to questions we’ve received regarding weather and its impact on the virus. Especially now that there are positive cases confirmed in New Jersey. Let’s break it down:
What is the coronavirus?
It is important to note that there is no “THEE coronavirus.” There are many coronaviruses of which most are less harmful than this particular coronavirus of interest. Per the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as of March 3, 2020, “CDC is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was first detected in China and which has now been detected in almost 70 locations internationally, including in the United States. The virus has been named “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”). On January 30, 2020, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC). On January 31, 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency (PHE) for the United States to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to COVID-19.”
Like a common cold or influenza (the flu), COVID-19 is a virus. Per sepsis.org, “A virus is a tiny agent that lives inside living cells, or host cells. Viruses need living cells to be able to replicate or reproduce. There are thousands of viruses, some more common than others. For example, the common cold and the flu are viruses, but so are Ebola and HIV. Viral infections that may be minor in normal, healthy individuals can be quite severe for people who have a weakened immune system. For most viruses, treatment is for the symptoms, such as using over-the-counter pain relievers to ease pain and reduce fever, rest for fatigue, etc., until the virus is gone. But the viruses themselves are not easy to treat. For example, treatment for hepatitis C, a liver disease, involves a strict medication regimen that can take from several weeks up to a few months before the virus is cleared from your body. Other viruses don’t have a cure, but there are medications that may speed healing if they are taken early enough after your exposure to the virus. These include medications for influenza and shingles (herpes zoster). Medications for other viruses, such as HIV, keep the virus in check, but aren’t a cure. They can prevent the virus from replicating and causing more damage.” COVID-19, like MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, is believed to have originated from animal reservoirs especially from bats.
How bad is it?
So far in the US there is a mortality rate of about 3.6% in those who have contracted the virus (22 deaths from 607 confirmed US cases). The traditional flu has about a 1% or less mortality rate. So while there are many more traditional flu cases than COVID-19 cases, it is about 3 times deadlier based on available US data right now. We also have to consider the infancy state that COVID-19 is in. Traditional flu has been around for a while. If COVID-19 survives this summer and comes back when temperatures return colder for fall/winter then you might see a completely different comparison of case quantity. While some/most of the COVID-19 symptoms are similar to traditional flu, COVID-19 is a bit more aggressive on the respiratory system in general especially for the elderly or those with compromised health conditions.
Per the CDC, “Both MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV have been known to cause severe illness in people. The complete clinical picture with regard to COVID-19 is not fully understood. Reported illnesses have ranged from mild to severe, including illness resulting in death. While information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild, a report out of China suggests serious illness occurs in 16% of cases. Older people and people with certain underlying health conditions like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example, seem to be at greater risk of serious illness.”
How does it spread?
COVID-19 has a relatively long incubation period. While not exactly certain I’ve seen anywhere from 14 to 20 days. 14 days seems to be the official quarantine period. During this incubation period a host will have little-to-no symptoms but is considered contagious. That means people can walk around and live their daily lives for weeks before figuring out they are coming down with something. The virus likes to spread through human-to-human interaction. The CDC suggests a radius of risk of about 6 feet. Respiratory droplets, produced from coughing, sneezing, etc., appears to be the most efficient method of spread. The traditional flu can typically live 24-48 hours on a non-living surface before dying off from lack of living cells hosting. It is currently unknown how long COVID-19 can live on a non-living surface. But it is assumed that touching an infected surface and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes is another method of spread but not as aggressive as respiratory droplets. Per nationalgeographic.com, “At the most basic level, you can think of flu and coronaviruses as a collection of proteins and lipids. They pass from person to person via physical contact, but they can also exist on hard surfaces or in the cough of a sick person’s respiratory droplets. Once outside a human body, external forces will cause the virus to deteriorate. The alcohol in hand sanitizer, for example, breaks down these proteins and lipids, making the virus less stable and less likely to successfully cause an infection. (Once your body’s infected, this is what coronavirus does.)”
How does the weather affect it?
There is some indication that COVID-19 reacts to weather conditions as the traditional flu does. This is far from certain but simply assumed by geographic data. SE Asia, for example, is a very warm and humid environment and has reported far less cases than areas further N in Asia. One of the theories of why conditions that are more tropical affect virus spread is that “the droplets that carry viruses do not stay suspended in humid air as long, and the warmer temperatures lead to more rapid virus degradation,” says Elizabeth McGraw, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University. So when you sneeze and generate high-velocity oral and nasal impact spatter, it can travel much further when the air is cold and dry than if the air is warm and moist. Therefore warmth and humidity is hypothesized to at least slow the spread of COVID-19 but it is still uncertain if it will completely kill it. Again we’re only seeing less cases in warmer/more humid climates NOT NO cases. Assuming case frequency and quantity declines through this spring and summer, it might increase again when we turn colder later this fall.
Another theory is the amount of time spent indoors because of weather. In colder months people generally spend more time indoors to stay warm. During Arctic outbreaks and snow events people are often forced indoors with weakened immune systems from the drastic outdoor-to-indoor temperature changes. Even in near-snowless winters like these past two years there are a handful of transient 2-3 day colder periods that occur (NNJ dropping to single-digits and teens/SNJ dropping to teens and 20s). Once warmer weather arrives people tend to spend at least slightly less time indoors. This would theoretically apply to COVID-19 as it does to common colds and influenza.
March is expected to be above-average in temperature but we likely wouldn’t have the higher humidity hot days until May, perhaps a handful of transient warm shots in April. So until then it is safe to assume that New Jersey’s weather climate will not inhibit COVID-19 spread. Once we get into June-forward we’ll be in the NJ climate that typically eliminates most cold, flu and other viruses. We can only assume that COVID-19 will behave the same way but again, cannot be 100% sure until more data is analyzed.
Some Common Sense
What can you do to minimize the risk of COVID-19? The same thing you do to mitigate traditional cold and flu risk! Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently especially after touching public surfaces of any kind. Your home surfaces are much safer than public surfaces but treat them the same way if you can. If you are coming down with something stay home or work remotely. If you are somewhere that someone is coughing and sniffling, get out of there and do not come within 6 feet of them. I wouldn’t use mass transportation methods if you can avoid them especially in more concentrated metropolitan/city areas. I see a lot of companies, and even government organizations, being lenient with remote work. I also see a lot of large-scale events cancelling. They are doing it for a reason folks!
In my non-political opinion, and yes that needs to be stated, this is not the end of the world but it should be responsibly considered and acted upon. One political side will have you believing we’re all going to die in a few days and this should be leveraged for political overhaul in November. The other political side is likely acting complacently pre-defensive to said notions by downplaying the entire situation (“The flu is much worse” crowd). Can we please think and act with reason so that we’re not over or under-reacting? We can all play a role in mitigating the risk by taking what I said in the prior paragraph seriously. There are a few companies, some international, who are testing vaccines but such medication needs sub-optimal time for human testing. I think we are going to continue to see reported cases and death tolls rise, both in US and internationally, through March and even April. Hopefully the warmer and more humid conditions arrive by late-April into May and further help to slow the spread.
McGraw, Elizabeth, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University.