We asked infectious disease epidemiologist, Amira Roess, Ph.D., M.P.H., our top coronavirus questions.

Lauren Wicks
February 11, 2020

The number of coronavirus-related deaths is over 1,000, surpassing the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis death toll. The World Health Organization is now considering sending its experts to China in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading further. While illnesses are mostly concentrated in China, there are 12 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S.

Amira Roess, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. She is an infectious disease specialist and is currently leading a study of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus—a different but still potentially deadly strain. She answered our burning questions from what the coronavirus even is, to if taking supplements will help.

Related: Flu-Fighting Foods You Already Have in Your Kitchen

What exactly is the coronavirus, and how does one get it?

Roess says coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause a wide range of illnesses, from the common cold to severe respiratory diseases. Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. The infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and, in severe cases, death.

"There are lots of coronaviruses that infect animals and occasionally these will spill over into humans," Roess says. "The 2019 Novel Coronavirus is one. SARS and MERS are two other well-known coronaviruses that spilled over into human populations and are known to have caused severe respiratory disease in humans."

Roess says that the 2019 Novel Coronavirus causing our current epidemic has not been previously documented as causing illness in humans. She says we are getting better at identifying new strains of coronavirus (like this one) as our technology and surveillance systems improve.

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Who is most at risk for getting the coronavirus in the U.S.?

"The overall risk is low," Roess says. "Individuals who have traveled to parts of China that are affected by the virus are most at risk and those who have been in contact with individuals affected with the illness are at greater risk."

Are there certain nutrients we should load up on to protect against the coronavirus?

Roess says there are no known specific nutrients to protect against the 2019 novel coronavirus. However, she says taking vitamin C and zinc couldn't hurt, since they show to boost the immune system. She also says research shows that zinc can cut the duration of a cold, so it's worth packing these nutrients in as flu season winds down.

Related: How to Actually Boost Your Immunity and Not Get Sick

What are some practical ways we can prevent getting the coronavirus?

Roess says the best actions we can take to reduce our risk of the virus include:

  1. Washing your hands when getting back home or to your office, after you use the bathroom and before you eat. You should prioritize washing your hands with soap and water rather than just using hand sanitizer, as it is more effective. And wash for 20 seconds.
  2. Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Roess says this is especially the case if you have dirty hands, as that is typically how pathogens get into our bodies and cause illness.
  3. Practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors. This includes getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated and eating well to help keep your immune system strong.
  4. Trying to reduce stress. Roess says stress can deplete your immune system and we need to actively work to keep it down, as we are still in the midst of a very active flu season.

How concerned should Americans be by the virus?

"As long as Americans are following the recommendations of the CDC and are doing some of what I mentioned above, the risk will remain low," Roess says.

Besides the tips mentioned here, the CDC also recommends staying home when you are sick, avoiding close contact with those who are sick, covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Related: Can Elderberry Help Treat the Cold and Flu?

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