As if you needed another reason to wash your hands, the flu virus has caused 22 million illnesses in the United States this season, put more than 210,000 people in the hospital and caused 12,000 deaths, according to federal health officials. Still, it’s hard not to be more worried over developments in China, where huge regions of the world’s most populous country have come to a standstill — and more than 1,100 people have died — due to a new, highly infectious form of coronavirus.
So far, only 13 cases of the new coronavirus have been detected in the United States, according to the state Department of Public Health, with just one in Massachusetts and none in New Hampshire. (An additional five dozen cases are suspected nationwide but have not yet tested positive, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
That doesn’t mean state health officials are sitting this one out. In addition to screenings of passengers arriving from China at Logan Airport — direct flights from China have been limited to landing at 11 U.S. airports, the closest of which is New York’s JFK — health officials have set up an incident command that meets daily to check in on the spread of the virus and efforts to contain it. The virus is also the focus of a special state website.
The illness may not be spreading here, but public perception is another thing entirely. The news is fearsome enough to cause a shortage of face masks, not just in China but the United States, even if health officials doubt a mask’s ability to really prevent the spread of the virus. A national pharmacist group said last week 96% of local pharmacies are reporting a run on face masks, according to CNN Business, a reflection of both local interest as well as the vacuum created on the world market by the Chinese. The greatest impact of the coronavirus locally, so far, is both indirect and financial. Analysts and forecasters of the professional and armchair variety have said it’s simply impossible for China’s epic, virus-related standstill not to have wide effects on the global economy. Many factories still haven’t returned to work since the weeklong Lunar New Year holiday in January. That affects their customers, domestic and abroad, as well as vast supply networks from which those factories buy materials such as copper, aluminum, nickel, zinc and liquified natural gas. The New York Times reports China’s economic illness, caused by an actual one, has “generated waves that are rocking global commodities markets and disrupting supply networks that act as the backbone of the global economy.”
If it hasn’t affected your 401(k) yet, it’s only a matter of time. There is a silver lining in it all: Updates from China early this week are generally positive, with fewer new cases of the coronavirus reported. Also, the Times reports, government officials are working to nudge factories back to production and taking steps to goose the economy — such as tax breaks, rent reductions in state-owned housing and lower bank interest rates — with hope of offsetting damage done by a long, forced holiday. Only time will tell how long it takes China to restart its country. Nearly 7,000 miles from Beijing, one hopes the human and economic costs of the virus truly are contained. In the meantime, we’ll stick to the program of hand washing, covering our coughs and sneezes, and staying home when we are sick to prevent both the new coronavirus as well as more standard issue cases of the flu.
For more about the coronavirus, visit the state Department of Public Health’s website: www.mass.gov/guides/information-on-the-outbreak-of-2019-novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov