Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine hospitals in Huntley, McHenry and Woodstock, took Shaw Media Illinois reader questions about the coronavirus epidemic.
From Paul: Is it helpful to wear a protective mask, if you can find one? If so, what kind of mask is best?
Dr. Hafiz: It is not currently recommended that the general public wears masks to prevent contracting the coronavirus or influenza. Masks are most used by health care workers who are in close contact with actively ill patients.
Respirator masks, or N95 masks, are only helpful for health care workers who are specially trained to use them. They closely fit to the employee’s face by creating an air seal and, when used correctly, they can prevent the acquiring of airborne illnesses. When used correctly, they are difficult to wear for long periods of time, making use outside of health care impractical.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends surgical-style masks only for people who already have respiratory symptoms or who have been diagnosed with an illness like influenza or a virus that can be spread through coughing and sneezing. When worn by a person who is infected, the masks serve as a physical barrier, blocking the spread of droplets when a person is near other people.
From Donald: Will the coronavirus come back next year like the flu?
Dr. Hafiz: It is likely we will continue to see outbreaks of the coronavirus circulating as a seasonal virus. We will continue to emphasize prevention measures like hand-washing, use of hand sanitizer, keeping your hands away from your face and staying home if ill.
From Jan: What are symptoms of the virus that differ from the common flu?
Dr. Hafiz: “COVID-19,” the illness caused by the new coronavirus, and influenza are infectious respiratory illnesses that cause similar symptoms in people who are infected. So far in 2020, the flu is having a far greater impact than COVID-19 on Americans.
Both COVID-19 and influenza can cause fevers, cough, body aches and fatigue. Some people experience only mild symptoms, and others can have severe effects that can lead to pneumonia and even death. Some people also may experience vomiting and diarrhea.
The illnesses are spread in a similar way when a person sneezes, coughs or talks and sends droplets into the air. There is some information that shows COVID-19 may stay in the air longer than the typical influenza virus.
The best way to avoid spreading both viruses is to wash your hands diligently using soap and water or hand-sanitizing gel. People should also avoid touching their faces because the viruses can easily enter a person’s body through the eyes, nose and mouth.
One major difference between COVID-19 and influenza is that there is already a vaccine for influenza, and we do not yet have a vaccine for COVID-19. It isn’t too late to get your flu shot.
From Sam and Lindsay: My child has an autoimmune condition. How would this affect them differently than influenza A or B? Do we know what areas of immunity are involved with creating antibodies for the virus?
Dr. Hafiz: Autoimmune conditions, as opposed to immunodeficiency conditions, are due to an overactive immune condition. The autoimmune condition by itself in most cases should not change the risk of infection. However, the treatments for autoimmune conditions may involve the use of immunosuppressant agents such as prednisone. These can certainly increase the risk for a variety of infections, including influenza and coronavirus, etc.
Therefore, patients on immunosuppressive treatments should consult with their physician on the need to receive vaccinations and/or other measures to prevent infections.
From John: Should we be canceling community events?
Dr. Hafiz: The Illinois Department of Public Health and local health departments are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and there is no immediate recommendation that organizations cancel events.
However, the situation could rapidly change if we begin to see local infections, so it’s best to closely monitor the news or contact your local health department if you have a large event planned. People who are at higher risk for infection, including older adults and people with chronic health conditions, should also make informed decisions about large public gatherings.
From George: I realize that the coronavirus is not an immediate threat to us here in northern Illinois, but under what conditions should we begin to become alarmed?
Dr. Hafiz: It’s better to be prepared than alarmed in situations like these. The health department will determine if communities need to take steps such as canceling large gatherings, closing schools or asking people to stay at home whenever possible. The CDC has resources that help households prepare for a possible coronavirus outbreak in their communities. Many people have already taken the advice to buy food that would last a couple of weeks at home or to ensure they have 30 days of prescription medications on hand.