Coronavirus: What is it and what can I do?

I am not a medical professional. I have a degree in Evolutionary Biology, which means I have a strong understanding of how organisms evolve. My teaching experience at the undergraduate level gives me lots of practice researching and communicating complicated topics about biology. This is meant as a general resource guide for non-specialists to learn basic facts about the novel coronavirus and how it may affect our dance communities. See embedded links for further resources. I may update this as new information comes to light and as I find more resources. If you know of a useful resource that I haven’t included, I would love to read it!

What do I call it?

In December 2019, a new disease appeared in Wuhan, China which caused pneumonia-like symptoms. As our understanding of this disease evolves, we have used a few different names. Initial reports called it 2019-nCov. We have now settled into a slightly different naming scheme: SARS-CoV-2 refers to the virus itself and COVID-19 refers to the respiratory disease it causes. You may also hear it colloquially referred to as the novel coronavirus. For simplicity, I refer to it as the coronavirus in this article.


Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, dry coughs, shortness of breath, and fatigue. If you have congestion or wet coughs, then it is likely you have another disease, such as the flu or a cold, rather than COVID-19. Current estimates suggest a 2-14 day incubation period for the SARS-CoV-2 virus before patients exhibit any symptoms. If you have traveled to an area where COVID-19 is rampant, please quarantine and monitor your symptoms for 2 weeks before returning to work, school, or other public places.

At-risk groups

The WHO released a global mortality rate of 3.4% on March 3, 2020. However, there are very different rates for different groups of people. Mortality and serious complications are much more common for the elderly and people with underlying immune and respiratory conditions. There may also be increased complications in countries where smoking is common. Check out this article by Stat News for a breakdown of the mortality rates for different demographic groups. However, we are still relatively early into this pandemic. Calculating an accurate mortality rate is a complex task and changes frequently with new and improved data.

More than just mortality

Some patients have worse symptoms than others. According to the CDC, 20% of COVID-19 patients require hospital treatment. 20-30% of those hospitalized patients require intensive care for respiratory support. If too many people get sick at once, we will strain our healthcare system until the breaking point when we will be unable to treat all sick patients. Then people will die just due to lack of care. It is important to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible to reduce the stress on our healthcare infrastructure. Read this article from Medium for a break down of the potential threat to the US healthcare system.

But also, you should still care about that 3.4% of people who may die.

How does it spread?

The novel coronavirus is highly contagious and easily spread to family members and other members of your community. It is primarily spread through respiratory droplets when someone sneezes or coughs. Respiratory droplets can directly affect people within close proximity to a sick person, which is why most public health guidelines recommend social distancing: staying at least six feet away from other people. These droplets can get on hands, clothes, subway poles, and door handles. If someone touches this and then touches their face, it’s likely they will contract COVID-19. The coronavirus remains viable for about 2 hours on metal surfaces, though we do not yet have a good understanding of its lifespan on other surfaces such as cardboard or plastic.

The United States poses a particularly difficult problem due to the convoluted structure of our healthcare system. Most jobs do not provide employee sick pay. This actively encourages employees to come to work when they are sick. In an epidemic situation like COVID-19, people now have to choose between doing the right thing and earning a paycheck if they contract the disease.

Where is it?

Ummm… everywhere, kinda. Both Greenland and Madagascar have yet to see any infections, surprising no one who has ever played Plague, Inc. The novel coronavirus is officially a pandemic, a disease that affects many regions across the globe. At the time of writing, COVID-19 occurs in 107 different countries. If you would like to track the spread of this pandemic, Johns Hopkins hosts a world map of confirmed cases. This map represents a minimum number of cases. Cases must first be identified and tested to be tabulated. In the US, there have been several problems with access to and accuracy of testing. NY Governor Cuomo has been particularly outspoken about the problems in authorizing labs to test for new cases. We may see increasing numbers of infections in the US as our infrastructure to find and test new patients increases.

Global cases at the time of writing.

What can I do?

So yeah, it’s everywhere, it’s contagious. It is the combination of being highly contagious and very dangerous to specific people that means we need to be extra careful.

We have a duty to make sure we do everything we can to protect the at-risk members of our global community.

Thankfully, the actions we can take are pretty straightforward:

  1. Social distancing. Try and stay at least 6 feet away from other people to reduce the likelihood of transmitting pathogens back and forth. If possible, work from home, or use delivery services to lessen your time in public and in long lines. NY Governor Cuomo is even recommending that New Yorkers avoid crowded subway cars and buses. So, uh, we’ll see how that goes.
  2. Increased hygiene. This primarily means washing your hands and using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. It’s never a bad idea to wash your clothes frequently, including your outerwear that is more likely to come into contact with stray coronaviruses in your environment. Read the CDC guidelines for when and how to wash your hands.
  3. Regular cleaning of high-traffic areas. This includes doorknobs, handrails, and other things your or other people regularly touch. Don’t forget to disinfect your mobile phone and other electronic devices! While it might not be your duty to clean that public bathroom or subway pole, it might help to have alcohol sterilizing wipes on hand.

What do I do if I get COVID-19?

If you do contract COVID-19, you can help reduce further spread of the disease with a few simple steps:

  1. Stay home. Really, really, stay home. Do not go to work. Do not go to school. Do not go to the grocery store. Use friends or delivery services to get food, medicine, and other necessary supplies.
  2. Seek appropriate medical attention. You getting better faster means there are fewer coronaviruses out there to infect others. When you do leave the house to go to the doctor, wear a face mask and avoid close contact with other people. It helps to call ahead so your doctor’s office knows to receive you in a timely manner.
  3. Limit contact with other household members and pets. Sadly, there is one case of an owner transmitting COVID-19 to their dog. You will need to get someone else to care for your pets while you are sick.

Learn more in the official CDC guidelines.

Things to avoid

Don’t panic. Really, it helps no one. This sucks, a lot. But measured responses and actively working for the public good will get us out of this faster.

You don’t need a special mask. Save them for medical professionals who are actively caring for the sick. Panic-buying is already causing shortages of critical safety gear for the doctors and nurses on the front lines.

But I want to dance!?

Yeah, don’t we all! Depending on where you are, dancing may be low- or high-risk. Dancing in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Seattle are currently suspended. That makes sense for these areas with many cases, including community cases. Community cases are when someone gets sick who has had no known travel or contact with someone with the disease. This means the pathogen is out in the environment, and will likely infect more people. However, if you do not have community cases in your local area, it may be okay to dance with increased hygiene such as hand washing and venue cleaning such as doorknobs.

Different dance styles should take different levels of precautions, as the close embrace in dances like blues and tango create even more opportunities for disease transmission than more open dances like West Coast Swing and Lindy hop.

Local dances should pay attention to their local news, as your local situation can change rapidly. Increase hygiene and cleaning at your venues, and make sure no obviously sick individuals participate.

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