Social media heightens fear of coronavirus

DOVER — When looking at previous outbreaks, social media intensifies matters — and such is the case of the novel 2019 coronavirus, said Donna Patterson, a professor at Delaware State University, who studies global health and epidemics.

The novelty and the quick transmission rates are among the components that have contributed to the widespread coverage and public concern, she noted.

“Even though we have other coronaviruses, this one is new. It’s fairly unknown,” Dr. Patterson said. “I think a lot of what we’re seeing in terms of the comparison [to previous epidemics] is coverage of social media. Social media makes things much more kind of apparent to people: it’s more intense, you can track it more readily.”

There remain no cases of the COVID-19 — the virus was named this week — in Delaware, although the Delaware Division of Public Health released information that two patients are being monitored.

Two University of Delaware students are being screened by health officials for possible cases of COVID-19, a spokeswoman for the university said Tuesday.

The risk to the general public is low, DPH said in a release last week.

With its appearance in the U.S. — though in only a few cases — the virus is heightened in the public consciousness.

Facts and figures

Information released by the World Health Organization states there have been 1,017 deaths as of Tuesday, with one outside of China.

There were more than 42,708 confirmed cases of the virus on Tuesday. Most of the cases and most of the deaths are in Hubei province, Wuhan, according to WHO. There are 393 cases in 24 countries outside of China as of Tuesday’s report.

The mortality rate for this strain of coronavirus, Dr. Patterson added, is relatively low. When compared to the number of people who have contracted the virus, the mortality rate is about 2% to 3%, she said.

“If you look at the rates compared to, for instance, the flu, there are many more people that die every year, just in the United States, let alone in other parts of the world,” Dr. Patterson said.

Since the start of the flu season, there have been nearly 3,000 diagnosed cases of the flu, and seven flu-related deaths within Delaware, according to DPH.

Ebola comparison

Dr. Patterson’s research has looked at the Ebola outbreak. She noted differences between the reaction of COVID-19 to that of Ebola, which saw a lot of media attention in 2014.

“I would say the media coverage was very, very low early on,” she said. “I think most people were thinking, ‘Oh, this isn’t a big deal.’ … I think they thought Africa was far away so that it wouldn’t ever come here.”

People started paying attention when the outbreak spread to different countries within Africa and in the West, she said, and more so when the American doctors were infected.

“I think that’s when, particularly in the American consciousness, people started to pay much more attention,” she said. “It went on until 2016, but the media coverage did ebb a lot, particularly by the time spring 2015.”

During the outbreak in 2014, she said there were social media campaigns intended to educate the public on prevention and how it could be contracted to dispel poor information.

“I think it’s definitely changing it and making it more real to people, for certain,” she said.

There can be a darker side of that, though, where coverage makes the issue seem much worse.

“Not just in terms of looking at disease and epidemics, but I think you’re bombarded in a certain way that you weren’t you know even 10 years ago in the early stages of social media,” she said.

There also comes trying to weed out the facts from everything else.

“How do you verify the authenticity of this news because it’s moving so quickly?” she said.

There is an outbreak of Ebola in the Congo that has been ongoing for about a year and a half, but it hasn’t gotten the same attention as in 2014, or as COVID-19 now, she added.

For the current Ebola outbreak in the Congo, she attributed the lack of coverage to the fact it is in a different part of the continent and “virtually contained to one country.”

“In this case, media coverage tends to be more regional but also is quite different for instance than when we had cases of Ebola that spread from West Africa to the United States or Europe in 2014-2016,” she said.

Looking at COVID-19, when the Trump administration discussed potentially banning entrance to the U.S and when some Americans were evacuated from Wuhan, she said, “I think that’s what people really started paying attention.”

Dr. Patterson said that those travel bans — which typically don’t extend to illnesses like the flu — probably stem from how new the disease is.

“I think a lot of it is the novelty of it, being new and not really fully knowing how it started,” she said. “I think, too, both that and just given the numbers.”

Symptoms

Symptoms of COVID-19 are most similar to lower respiratory infections, a DPH release said, with patients experiencing fever, cough and shortness of breath. Those infected with the virus recover with rest, drinking plenty of fluids and taking over-the-counter medications to help relieve symptoms.

“The coronavirus appears to be quite contagious, but at the same time, we are still learning,” Dr. Patterson added. “Medical professionals and scientists are still gathering research because it is a new strand.”

When coverage on illnesses begins to ebb, she said that it’s due to a combination of factors.

“Once an epidemic peaks or is reasonably contained — often media interest wanes,” she said. “This is particularly true in the case of western media coverage of past Ebola and Zika epidemics because the risks for transmission seemed less likely in the public imaginary.”

DPH noted in a release last week that travelers returning from Hubei Province in China, as well as symptomatic persons returning from mainland China, will be quarantined for 14 days near a United States airport of entry, per federal orders.

Individuals who traveled from China prior to Feb. 3, are asked to self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days after their return, DPH said.

At Bayhealth, the hospital implemented a flu visitation policy at the start of 2020 due to the increase in flu cases throughout the community, said Bayhealth Senior Manager Infection Prevention Kelly Gardner, RN, CIC.

“This proactive approach is taken to ensure the safety of our patients, visitors and staff members,” she said in an email, adding that they have protocols in place for “emerging infectious diseases.”

COVID-19 is “no different than how we would treat other travel-related illness,” she said.

“With all travel-related illnesses, it’s imperative to have travel screening measures in place upon arrival for all patients, which we implemented throughout our healthcare system several years ago with the Ebola crisis,” she continued.

“We receive at least weekly updates from Delaware Public Health with information regarding any areas of concern. We also conduct drills on our emerging infectious disease protocols to ensure our staff members are prepared to respond appropriately.”