UChicago Medicine’s Emily Landon answers common questions about COVID-19

Assoc. Prof. Emily Landon specializes in infectious disease, and serves as medical director of antimicrobial stewardship and infection control at University of Chicago Medicine.

A contagious respiratory disease that was first detected in China in December 2019 has spread worldwide. The 2019 novel (new) coronavirus has been named SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes is called coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19.

Although health officials here and abroad are working to track and contain the growing epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects widespread transmission of COVID-19 in our country.

As an infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, my job is to prepare for outbreaks such as COVID-19 while caring for patients at our academic medical center on Chicago’s South Side.

The extent of this outbreak is rapidly evolving and risk assessment changes daily, but here’s what we know about COVID-19 as of today:

What is a coronavirus? What is a novel coronavirus?

A coronavirus is the name for a large set of illnesses, including the common cold and other respiratory infections. The term “novel” coronavirus means it’s a new form of the virus.

Where and how did COVID-19 begin?

We learned about this particular virus shortly after a cluster of severe pneumonia cases were reported on New Year’s Eve 2019 in Wuhan, which is in the Hubei Province of China. On Jan. 9, virologists and other public health researchers identified the strain as a novel coronavirus, which was tied to a specific “wet market” in the city of Wuhan, where they sell fish and other live animals.

These markets have been known to transmit viruses before. For cultural reasons in the region, people want to see the specific animals they’re buying be slaughtered in front of them, so they know they’re receiving the products they paid for. As a result, particles of infectious viruses or bacteria can be aerosolized and, in rare instances, jump from animals to people. It’s how SARS, another coronavirus, started in 2003.

How did the virus come to the United States?

The first known patients in the U.S. contracted the virus while traveling in other countries or after exposure to someone who had been to China or one of the other affected areas. But now, a few cases here cannot be traced to these risk factors. This is concerning because it suggests the illness may be spreading across communities for which the source of infection is unknown, which we call community spread/transmission. We don’t know how severe this will be, but it may cause significant disruptions in our daily lives.

How does COVID-19 spread?

This virus is really transmissible and can spread easily from person to person even before a person develops symptoms. It’s carried on respiratory droplets when we talk, sneeze, and cough and these can land on surfaces or in someone’s mouth or nose. When it comes to respiratory droplets, 6 feet is the magic distance. That’s how far these tiny, infected droplets can travel. Being within 6 feet of someone who is sick can get you or your personal space contaminated with COVID-19.

When droplets land on surfaces, we can pick them up with our hands and transfer them to our eyes, mouth, and nose when we touch our faces. This is why hand hygiene is so important. Good hand hygiene means washing our hands not just after we’re using the restroom or before we’re eating but regularly throughout the day. Respiratory secretions (like snot and sputum) are also be infectious, so cover your coughs and sneezes, use disposable tissues, throw them away when you’re done, and wash your hands afterward. Keep your work surfaces clean and wipe off your keyboard and your phone.

Read more at UChicago News.