Discussion of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 dominated the Boston Museum of Science Sunday as WGBH News' All Things Considered host Arun Rath moderated a panel on the topic titled "A Community Conversation On Coronavirus."
"I feel excited about this, not only as a journalist but as somebody who lives in this area I have a lot of questions," Rath said to open the conversation. "I have the luxury right now of being able to ask some of the smartest people available about that."
The panel included Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at the Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Larwrence Madoff, medical director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Dr. Jennifer Lo, medical director of of the Boston Public Health Commission.
Bhadelia started the conversation by going over what was known by Sunday about the virus.
"All we know is that this is a new virus," she said. "It is a virus that likely jumped from an animal host and is now infecting humans.
"Many details of the virus are still missing," she continued. "But we know the basic amount, which is that in most people it presents, even though ... it's not exactly like the flu, it presents with flu like symptoms."
Lo followed that up by pointing out that the incubation period of the virus is thought to be around four to five days and that it is a respiratory illness.
"So there is a loop in a lot of confusion about the difference between respiratory and airborne," she said. "If someone has coronavirus and is in the same room but 20 feet away, am I going to get it from them very specifically? The respiratory virus means you have to be in close contact — within six feet of the person ... who is infected.
"It's not something like, I don't know, Legionnaires disease would get into like the air system and circulate around," she added.
When asked about the mortality rate connected to the virus, Bhadelia said that there are multiple factors connected to how lethal or not it is in any given case.
"That is a function of the disease itself," she said. "It also depends on the person ... [and] what other medical conditions do they have, what's their age and immune system like?"
Bhadelia, who worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to contain that country's Ebola epidemic, added that health care systems are a critical factor in treatment and determining the virus' lethality.
"We saw very few people with [Ebola] in 1976 when it was first discovered, it was thought to have a mortality of 90 percent," she said. "Then as we got to see more patients with it and more patients came into contact with better health systems with this disease, we realized that with good care, even without targeted therapies, people's mortality could drop below 20 percent.
"As we learn about diseases, our understanding of mortality changes because we find out the whole gamut of the type of presentations [of symptoms] that people have."
Madoff said that age was a critical factor as well.
"With people young under the age of 60, the apparent mortality is pretty low, actually," he said. "And then above the age of 60, it begins to climb. And certainly above the age of 80, it becomes pretty high. And that's that's what we've learned, at least from the large populations in China."
The fact that the virus popped up in Wuhan — several thousand miles away — worked to the advantage of the public health structure in Boston, Lo said.
"The changes in China and abroad have been in the news for quite some time. So we set up an incident command structure ... before any cases came to Boston or the state of Massachusetts," she said. "And what the incident command means is, basically, the structure to identify communications, to identify resources that are needed in preparation for an outbreak or cluster or any sort of positive cases that we need to take care of in Boston."
Madoff also said that though authorities are not recommending the cancellation of large social gatherings locally, being aware of the situation as it develops is critical.
"Situational awareness is really important and knowing what's happening, not just in in Massachusetts, but in the world," he said. "The earlier you have those warnings, the earlier you can begin preparation for a particular situation, the better off you are and actually the more of an impact you can have. That's a really important principle."
Rath also gave the panel a chance to rate coverage of the disease in the news media.
"We absolutely depend on the news media in public health," Madoff said. "We can't reach the people the media can reach."
He added, "I think it's important for an informed public to be aware of that and to pay attention to reliable sources."
Lo, however, cautioned news professionals to not overly-sensationalize the situation.
"I think the two things that I wish the media would do is avoid sensationalizing it because sometimes, particularly in our world, the attention on the television or in the screen or on the computer doesn't come unless you really do these dramatic headlines," she said. "And now is the time for moderation and really, you know, media to be a partner to share what public health folks are saying in a way that's evenhanded and really giving the information that's needed rather than trying to make a news story out of it."
For more, watch the full conversationon the Forum Network YouTube page.