What Constitutes A Pandemic And How Will The Current Coronavirus Designation Affect You?

Experts recommend non-pharmaceutical intervention measures, like washing hands and coughing into a tissue, as the best protection against virus spread. Summer Photographer/Shutterstock

Madison Dapcevich 12 Mar 2020, 00:02

As the novel coronavirus makes its way to nearly every continent across dozens of countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. But what does that mean and how will such a designation impact you?

COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, is spread via water droplets like the flu and manifests in the body similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), impacting the respiratory tract and triggering an immune response. At the time of publication, more than 4,000 people have died and over 118,000 infections have been confirmed, though such numbers are consistently being updated.  

What Exactly Constitutes A Pandemic?

“A pandemic is the rapid spread of new human influenza around the world. Influenza pandemics happen when a new strain of a flu virus appears which can infect humans, to which most people have no immunity and which can transmit efficiently from human to human,” according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

A pandemic may be considered once an outbreak is occurring worldwide, crossing international boundaries, and usually affecting a large number of people. In the case of an influenza pandemic, the World Health Organization defines a pandemic as “almost simultaneous transmission” taking place worldwide, as was the case during the influenza A (H1N1) outbreak in 2009. (Though the declaration of the pandemic sparked controversy over how and when such a declaration is needed.) Under WHO regulations, an outbreak is considered a pandemic based on its ability to:

  • Infect humans,
  • Cause disease in humans, and
  • Easily spread from human to human.

“Simultaneous worldwide transmission of influenza is sufficient to define an influenza pandemic and is consistent with the classical definition of ‘an epidemic occurring worldwide,’” writes WHO, adding that in the case of influenza, there is “then ample opportunity to further describe the potential range… of pandemics in terms of transmissibility and disease severity.”  

It is important to note that a WHO pandemic categorization does not include the severity of the disease, and just one-in-six COVID-19 infections are severe. The majority of cases are expected to dissipate on their own.

WHO further breaks pandemics into six phases that are applicable to the entire world and provide a framework for aiding nations in preparedness and response planning.

Locations with confirmed COVID-19 cases. CDC

Here’s How A Pandemic Will Affect You

The entire nation of Italy is on lockdown and millions of people around the world are currently impacted by mandatory quarantines. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that Americans should prepare for a “serious disruption” in their daily lives. An outbreak is not a question of if but “when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

The daily impact in the US will vary based on where you are located. During a pandemic, legal authorities like state and federal health experts may enforce policies and regulations that respond to public emergencies, such as assisting states in meeting health emergencies and maintaining stockpiles of necessary items. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have already declared State of Emergencies and many states are following suit. In New York, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued containment measures meant to limit the spread of the virus, deployed the National Guard to a Health Department command, and will set up a satellite testing facility. Schools in the containment zone are closed through the end of the month while troops clean surfaces and deliver food within the 1.6-kilometer (1-mile) radius of the epicenter of infection clusters.

We can also expect to see events shutdown. Around the world, hundreds of major conferences, sporting events, and music festivals have been canceled or postponed as officials wait to see what happens with the virus, while schools from coast-to-coast are canceling all in-person classes and switching over to online forums. Many companies, including Amazon and NASA, have issued work-from-home policies after employees tested positive for the virus.

The CDC notes that following a public health emergency, officials are given a breadth of rights when it comes to combating the disease, including entering into new contracts for things like investigations and providing grant money to medical facilities. Additionally, government-funded medical programs may be waived or modified to accommodate for an increasing burden on medical resources.

During a pandemic, the US government advises individuals to keep a two-week supply of food and water at their home, as well as any regular prescription and nonprescription drugs needed. To limit the spread of germs and prevent infections, it is advisable to avoid close contact with people that are sick and to practice good hygiene and health habits.  

This image is a CG representation of COVID-19 under an electron microscope. Creative Commons
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