COVID-19 Q&A with Dr. Karen Duus

Immunologist and Associate Professor Answers COVID-19 Questions
Mar 12, 2020

Dr. Karen Duus, an immunologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Basic Sciences at Touro University Nevada, is here to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about COVID-19.

What do we know about COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the new SARS CoV-2 coronavirus. People infected by SARS CoV-2 often have no symptoms for days, so if they are around other people they can unknowingly infect them. Because SARS-CoV2 is highly infectious before people have any symptoms of illness, they may infect several people by the time they either start feeling ill, or recover without ever feeling ill. COVID-19 is a mild disease 80% of the time, so that seems like a minor cold or allergies, so we don’t isolate ourselves, and infect others. Importantly, the virus is very easy to spread from human to human because in the early stages it is concentrated in the upper throat, so when an infected person coughs or sneezes, billions of infectious virus particles can be expelled and transmitted to another person.

Unfortunately some people infected with the virus develop much more severe disease. These persons are often those who have immune systems which are not able to fight off the virus very well, like people over age 65, those who are on medications that decrease immune responses to avoid transplanted organ rejection, or diseases that are the result of too much immune activity, like rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, people with chronic disease issues like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are also at risk for more severe COVID-19 disease. In these people, the disease often starts in the throat, and as it progresses, the virus moves down into the lungs and becomes a lower respiratory infection. When this happens, the lungs may fill with fluid in response to the virus, and the person develops pneumonia, and may need to be hospitalized so that they can get medical help to breath. Some of these severely ill people – about one person in 100 infected people – will die.

What makes COVID-19 different than the flu?

The symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to, and easily confused with the flu, so many people think they have the flu, and don’t realize that they are actually infected with SARS CoV-2. Unlike the flu, children do get infected, but symptoms tend to be mild, and they have a higher rate of infection without symptoms than adults, but very likely can infect other people who may get severely ill. An interesting early symptom of COVID-19 disease reported recently for some, but not all patients, is the loss of sense of smell and taste, which does not occur with influenza.

What makes a virus different than bacteria?

Viruses are much smaller than bacteria; you must have an electron microscope to see them. You can fit 100 million viruses on the head of a pin. Viruses must get into a host cell to replicate, because they must use the cell’s protein-making machinery to make new virus particles. Bacteria don’t require host cells to replicate; you can grow bacteria in petri dishes containing culture medium. Even bacteria have viral diseases; bacterial viruses are called bacteriophages.

What does it mean to have a pandemic?

A pandemic means that an infectious pathogen is spreading and causing disease among populations all over the world. This tends to happen when a new virus starts infecting people because no one has any immunity to them.

How can we stop the spread of this virus?

Since SARS CoV-2 spreads from person-to-person, people have to stay away from other people to stop the spread.

How easily can COVID-19 spread?

This virus spreads very easily, and it survives on surfaces for several days, depending on environmental conditions. So, if an infected person coughs or sneezes, millions of viruses go flying into the air, and land on everything in the area. If the infected person covers their mouth with their hand, the particles are now on the hand, which can transfer the infectious viruses to anything the infected person touches: other people, and all the surfaces. If another person touches any of those surfaces within a couple of days and then touches their own mouth, nose, or eyes, the virus now may be able to infect that person. If an infected person is sitting across the table from you, as they talk, the air coming out of their mouth may be full of viruses, which then can land on you, the table, your food or drink, and you can become infected.

Where should people go for updates?

The CDC website, the Southern Nevada Health District website, and the Touro University Nevada homepage for specific Touro information.

What can we do to better prepare ourselves during this time?

Take care of yourself. Make out a routine or schedule so that you stay busy throughout the day. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, and exercise by yourself or with the others you live with, and if you are feeling very anxious or stressed, find someone you trust to talk to via phone, or online.