As Fears of Wuhan’s Coronavirus Spread

To the Editor:

Re “Mask Hoarders May Raise the Risk of the Virus Spreading in the U.S.” (news article, Jan. 30):

Your coverage of coronavirus reflects a real concern as well as an overreaction in the West to this outbreak. When I walk through our Phoenix hospital’s emergency department, I’m reminded of the global outbreak we really should be worried about: influenza.

We are at a high point in the flu season, with 15 million cases, 140,000 hospitalizations, and 8,200 deaths in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every day dozens of people with flu symptoms come through our emergency department.

Coronavirus is a serious disease, and we must be vigilant in monitoring its spread while working to find solutions. But at this writing, there have been only a handful of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in this country, mostly in recent travelers to Wuhan, China. Rather than rushing out to buy masks and fretting over the unlikely chance of contracting the coronavirus, Americans should get their flu shots, and wash their hands often to avoid the flu.

Michael D. White
The writer is chief medical officer at Valleywise Health.

To the Editor:

While it is far too early to make concrete predictions about the lethality of the coronavirus that is now spreading around the globe, the media has overlooked one critical risk factor that is present in China: high levels of PM 2.5 in the air. PM 2.5 refers to particles of pollution that are small enough to pass through the lung and enter the bloodstream, causing damage to the immune system as well as other organ systems, such as the lungs.

Thus far, it appears that the virus produces a severe infection primarily in those with weakened lungs and immune systems, such as the elderly, diabetics and smokers. One important consideration is that the citizens of Wuhan are exposed to unusually high levels of PM 2.5, typically 20 times the current “acceptable” limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The virus is likely to be less lethal in less polluted areas of the world.

As the Environmental Protection Agency relaxes air quality standards, we should be mindful of the broad benefits of a breath of fresh air.

Peter Muennig
New York
The writer is a professor of health policy and management at Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.

To the Editor:

Re “Feeble Health System in China Strains to Combat Deadly Virus” (front page, Jan. 28):

Your article describing the Chinese health system as being “feeble” in its ability to deal with the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan depicts an overwhelmed medical infrastructure in China. Sadly, in the event of a pandemic, our hospitals would be similarly overwhelmed.

After the anthrax scare in 2001, my hospital held a medical staff meeting to review emergency procedures if there were an outbreak in Philadelphia. It was sobering to hear how few excess intensive care unit beds and even hospital beds were available in our city for an outbreak of anthrax due to bioterrorism.

Apparently, in the event of a public health disaster, the supply of antibiotics available to a large city is limited to a few days. We were told that all vacant hospital beds would be filled in days, and patients would be boarded in the hallways. Also, excess ventilator capacity was fairly limited, and that in short order, no ventilators would be available to support critically ill patients.

At the time of 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, we had a similar sobering review of our capacity to handle a widespread outbreak. In summary, I don’t know that cities in the United States would do much better than Wuhan.

Bernard A. Mason

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