Introduction to the Epidemiology of COVID-19

Hugo Onghai and Andrew Patterson COVID-19 Apr 1, 2020

At the moment, concrete numbers are rather hard to come by. In most countries the disease is still spreading at an exponential rate. Even then, most of the confirmed cases are people who are symptomatic, leaving open the possibility that there are many more undiagnosed cases. On the upside, that means that most people do not become seriously ill. All we really know is that the disease is spreading very fast and that there are methods we can use to slow that spread. That being said…

Epidemiology is the study of disease and how it spreads. Epidemiology is crucial in controlling the spread of health problems, such as the coronavirus we face today. Epidemiologists, who are hard at work collecting data on the COVID-19 outbreak on a global scale, are the unsung heroes of public health; our actions are greatly based on the data they collect. The two best ways you can help slow the spread of coronavirus disease are social-distancing and proper hand-washing.

How Social Distancing Works

Keeping yourself away from sick people and avoiding any potentially contaminated surfaces and places will not only reduce your chance of getting the disease, but will also prevent you from spreading it to people with weakened immune systems. So for all of you college students on “Spring Break” down in Florida, although your immune systems should be able to handle the coronavirus, others’ would not; this may lead to hospitalization and death.

If the rate of infection continues to grow at the rate it is growing, there will be so many serious cases that our healthcare system’s resources will not be able to take care of them all. Already doctors in Madrid, due to limited ventilators and respirators, are having to make the dreadful choice of who lives, and who doesn’t.

This is an epi-curve. An epi-curve is a depiction of the number of new cases every day, week, or even month over time. Although this is a projection of how we think the COVID-19 pandemic will pan out, we can see how the number of new cases each day grows, peaks, and then dies down. Our goal is to spread this curve out enough so that our healthcare system will have ample resources for all patients. Although a pretty simplistic epi-curve, it gets the point across. Source: CDC

We can change the outcome of this pandemic with action now.

Hand Washing

Another way the virus spreads is contact with contaminated surfaces. Think about it: if you are at the supermarket, you could easily touch a contaminated door handle and get the virus onto your hands, even if the store does not have many people there right now. (Epidemiologists call inanimate objects that can carry diseases fomites). Diseases spread according to the Chain of Infection. The Chain of Infection describes the steps that an infectious disease follows to grow, spread, and infect. The Chain of Infection is as follows: Reservoir, Portal of Exit, Modes of Transmission, Portal of Entry, Host. Then, if you keep your hands unwashed, over the course of the day, you will inevitably touch your face at least once, giving the virus an easy way into your mouth, eyes, or ears to infect you (thus completing the Chain of Infection). If you wash your hands frequently, you have a much lower chance of infecting yourself or even placing the disease onto a different surface waiting to be touched by someone else.

Of course, if you cannot wash your hands with soap and water at one moment, use hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol), and always avoid unnecessary contact with your eyes, nose, and mouth.

So if SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, manages to leave an infected human (the reservoir) via a portal of exit like the mouth, and is able to transport itself on a droplet and then onto your hands, the best defense to make sure it does not enter your system is thorough and frequent handwashing. Not only does soap chemically break down the structure of the virus, but the water also acts as a physical agent to wash any of the virus off your hands.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

If you only take away one thing from this article, it should be that coronavirus spreads fast, person-to-person, and many people's lives are at stake. To reduce the growth rate and give us time to prepare for the influx of cases, we can all play our part. Please, practice social distancing, proper handwashing, and keep yourself informed with credible sources!

Featured Image: Lower right corner image by Emmett Maier ; Middle left image of map from CC BY-SA 4.0  ; Collage by Hugo Onghai

Useful Links:

Global Trackers

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sources (epi-curve)

That’s kinda cool ^^^

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