Going Viral

The shelf of the N95 class of disposable respirators at Home Depot in Seaside was nearly bare on Jan. 27.

There’s been a run on 3M performance respirators in the paint tool aisle at the Seaside Home Depot, in part by people from China, either living here and sending masks back to family, or those visiting the U.S. A young family was seen recently in the parking lot packing three boxes of respirators into luggage. They declined to answer questions from a reporter, indicating they don’t speak English.

The respirators are believed by some to protect the wearer from contracting diseases – or at least minimize risk – in this case specifically the coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, a new virus similar to earlier viruses like SARS or MERS. (Health experts’ opinions on the effectiveness of these masks are mixed.)

The coronavirus is suspected to have begun in the city of Wuhan and has spread rapidly to other regions of China, with more than 4,500 confirmed cases and over 130 deaths reported since December, according to China’s National Health Commission.

The risk in the U.S. remains relatively low for now, says Monterey County Health Officer Edward Moreno. As of Jan. 27, five confirmed cases have been identified in the U.S., including two in California, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The CDC also reports 110 people in total have been investigated for the virus, with 32 testing negative and 73 pending. Three of those investigated were in Monterey County, with one found negative and two pending results, Moreno says.

Moreno and county epidemiologist Kristy Michie are in daily contact with California Department of Public Health officials and keeping local hospitals educated. Michie has contacted local educational institutions with high populations of international staff and students to provide information about who is at risk and what symptoms to look for, including fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Anyone who has traveled to China within the previous 14 days and has developed symptoms is advised to call their doctor first – not show up at an emergency room or clinic unannounced. As with any virus, it’s important to cover coughs and sneezes with a bent elbow, wash hands, use hand sanitizer and stay home if one feels ill. Moreno says anyone who has not had a flu vaccine should get one because remaining healthy will help fight off other viruses. Flu, he adds, remains a greater threat than the coronavirus.

“We try to put this into perspective: With five [coronavirus] cases in the U.S. and no deaths, there are far more people in the U.S. who will come down with influenza and die from it this year,” Moreno says.

Editor's Note: Since this article went to print, the number of cases investigated increased from one to three. The article has been updated to reflect the change.

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