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The new coronavirus has reached the US. Here’s everything you need to know about the virus, including how to protect yourself

A new Chinese coronavirus, a cousin of the SARS virus, has infected more than 200 people since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December. Scientist Leo Poon, who first decoded the virus, thinks it likely started in an animal and spread to humans.
A new Chinese coronavirus, a cousin of the SARS virus, has infected more than 200 people since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December. Scientist Leo Poon, who first decoded the virus, thinks it likely started in an animal and spread to humans. (CNN)

What started as a mystery virus last month in Wuhan, China, has now killed more than two dozen people and infected hundreds more around the world. In the US, sixty-three people are under investigation for the virus and here in Texas, at least two people are being treated with suspected cases of the virus - a Texas A&M student in Brazos County and a Baylor student in Waco - stoking fears of an outbreak in the country.

So what exactly is the coronavirus and how can you minimize your risk?

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are common among animals. In rare cases, they are what scientists call zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to humans, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the symptoms?

The viruses can make people sick, usually with a mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illness, similar to a common cold. Coronavirus symptoms include a runny nose, cough, sore throat, possibly a headache and maybe a fever, which can last for a couple of days.

For those with a weakened immune system, the elderly and the very young, there's a chance the virus could cause a lower, and much more serious, respiratory tract illness like a pneumonia or bronchitis.

There are a handful of human coronaviruses that are known to be deadly.

Middle East respiratory syndrome, also known as the MERS virus, was first reported in the Middle East in 2012 and also causes respiratory problems, but those symptoms are much more severe. Three to four out of every 10 patients infected with MERS died, according to the CDC.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS, is the other coronavirus that can cause more severe symptoms. First identified in the Guangdong province in southern China, according to the WHO, it causes respiratory problems but can also cause diarrhea, fatigue, shortness of breath, respiratory distress and kidney failure. Depending on the patient's age, the death rate with SARS ranged from 0-50% of the cases, with older people being the most vulnerable.

The Wuhan coronavirus is currently thought to be more mild than SARS and MERS and takes longer to develop symptoms. Patients to date have typically experienced a mild cough for a week followed by shortness of breath, causing them to visit the hospital, explains Peter Horby, professor of emerging infectious diseases and global health at the University of Oxford. So far, around 15% to 20% of cases have become severe, requiring, for example, ventilation in the hospital.

How does it spread?

Viruses can spread from human contact with animals. Scientists think MERS started in camels, according to the WHO. With SARS, scientists suspected civet cats were to blame. Officials do not yet know what animal may have caused the current outbreak in Wuhan.

When it comes to human-to-human transmission of the viruses, often it happens when someone comes into contact with an infected person's secretions, such as droplets in a cough.

Depending on how virulent the virus is, a cough, sneeze or handshake could cause exposure. The virus can also be transmitted by touching something an infected person has touched and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. Caregivers can sometimes be exposed by handling a patient's waste, according to the CDC.

Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed for the Wuhan coronavirus, but experts are now trying to understand who is transmitting it most, who is at most risk and whether transmission is occurring mostly in hospitals or in the community. SARS and MERS were largely transmitted inside hospitals, Horby said. Some people are also considered to be "superspreaders."

Who is affected?

MERS, SARS and the Wuhan coronavirus appear to cause more severe disease in older people, though uncertainty remains around the latest outbreak. Of the cases of Wuhan coronavirus reported so far, none are yet confirmed to be among children, Horby said. The average age is people 40 or over, he said.

Coronavirus treatment

There is no specific treatment, but research is underway. Most of the time, symptoms will go away on their own and experts advise seeking care early. If symptoms feel worse than a standard cold, see your doctor.

Doctors can relieve symptoms by prescribing a pain or fever medication. The CDC says a room humidifier or a hot shower can help with a sore throat or cough.

Drink plenty of fluids, get rest and sleep as much as possible.

What is the risk to the the general American public?

The immediate health risk from Wuhan coronavirus to the general American public is considered low at this time, according to the CDC.

“We understand that some people are worried about this virus and how it may impact Americans. While this situation poses a very serious public health threat, CDC believes that the immediate risk to the US public is low at this time but the situation continues to evolve rapidly,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

What can you do to minimize your risk?

Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing, the World Health Organization says.

Other symptoms of this coronavirus include fever and shortness of breath. Severe cases can lead to pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.

Scientists believe this coronavirus started in another animal and then spread to humans. So health officials recommend cooking meat and eggs thoroughly.

Anyone with underlying medical conditions should avoid live animal markets and raw meats altogether, since those people are "considered at higher risk of severe disease," the World Health Organization says.

But, in general, the public should do "what you do every cold and flu season," said Dr. John Wiesman, the health secretary in Washington state -- where the first US case of Wuhan coronavirus was confirmed.

That includes washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

If you're the one feeling sick, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and disinfect the objects and surfaces you touch.

If you or your doctor suspect you might have the Wuhan coronavirus, the CDC advises wearing a surgical mask.

What’s happening in Texas?

In Texas, at least two people are being treated with suspected cases of the virus, a Texas A&M student in Brazos County and a Baylor student in Waco.

Officials at the Brazos County Health District said Thursday they are investigating a suspected case of the 2019 novel coronavirus.

The male patient, who has been identified as a student at Texas A&M University, had traveled from Wuhan, China,

The patient is undergoing tests to confirm the suspected diagnosis. The results of those tests will be announced to the public if the patient’s tests come back positive for the virus.

At Baylor University in Waco, a student is suspected of having contracted the coronavirus on a recent trip to China, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.

The student traveled to China this year and was tested for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Thursday, officials wrote in an announcement on Facebook. The samples are headed to the Centers for Disease Control for testing, officials said Friday.

Officials say the student is “doing well with minimal symptoms,” and has been asked to “self-isolate."

Is there a treatment?

There is no specific treatment, but research is underway. Most of the time, symptoms will go away on their own and experts advise seeking care early. If symptoms feel worse than a standard cold, see your doctor.

Doctors can relieve symptoms by prescribing a pain or fever medication. The CDC says a room humidifier or a hot shower can help with a sore throat or cough.

Drink plenty of fluids, get rest and sleep as much as possible.

Across the US, scientists are trying to create a vaccine for the new virus. But don’t expect it anytime soon.

The National Institutes of Health is working on one, but it will take at least a few months before clinical trials start and more than a year until a vaccine might actually become available.

Separately, scientists in Texas, New York and China are also trying to create on a vaccine, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

But the challenge is daunting.

"The lesson we've learned is coronavirus infections are serious and one of the newest and biggest global health threats," Hotez said.

What are airports doing?

Passengers from Wuhan to the United States -- either on direct or indirect flights -- will soon only be allowed to land at one of five US airports screening for the virus.

CDC workers at those US airports -- John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport -- have already screened more than 2,000 travelers for symptoms such as fever, cough and trouble breathing.

Officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport put up signs at the international arrivals area instructing travelers from Wuhan to watch for symptoms of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started displaying the sign in English and Chinese on January 14, an airport spokesman said.

But these airport screenings might not catch everyone infected. That's because the incubation period can last a week -- meaning it can take a week after getting infected before showing any symptoms.

What is the CDC doing?

The CDC raised its travel warning for Wuhan from level 2 to level 3 -- the highest possible level.

"CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Wuhan, China," the agency said Thursday.

The announcement came after Chinese officials scheduled a public transportation lockdown for the city's buses, ferries and subways. Airport and rail stations have been temporarily closed for departing passengers, Wuhan authorities said.

For those who traveled to China in the past two weeks and have symptoms such as fever, cough or trouble breathing, the agency recommends seeking immediate care, avoiding contact with others, not traveling and practicing good hygiene.

“At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people,” the CDC said.

What to do if you’re planning to go to China:

This virus is spreading at the worst possible time of the year -- when millions of people are traveling to or within China for Lunar New Year celebrations.

Chinese New Year starts Saturday, but festivities can last for two weeks and often include family rituals that are supposed to ensure a successful year.

While the CDC's travel warning for Wuhan is a Level 3, the travel alert level for the rest of China is at Level 1-- which means "practice usual precautions."

But Americans visiting friends and family in China might be at greater risk than tourists.

"Their risk is higher because they generally stay longer than tourists, eat local food in people's homes, and may not take the same precautions that tourists do," the CDC said.

Before traveling, the CDC recommends visiting a health care provider to make sure you have all necessary vaccinations and travel medication.

Americans should also monitor for warnings and alerts from the US State Department and register trips with the US Embassy or consulate.