After infecting more than 115,000 people worldwide, 1,000 of whom have been detected in the United States, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the ongoing coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11.
"@WHO is deeply concerned by the alarming levels of the #coronavirus spread, severity & inaction, & expects to see the number of cases, deaths & affected countries climb even higher," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, said on Twitter today. "Therefore, we made the assessment that #COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic."
COVID-19, or more commonly referred to as coronavirus, can cause fever, cough, and shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with the symptoms taking anywhere from two to 14 days to appear in those who are infected. While COVID-19 can be fatal, especially to those who have vulnerable immune systems or underlying health conditions, current research indicates that most cases are mild.
While WHO's announcement may sound alarming, here's a brief breakdown of what this new characterization means.
Why Is The New Coronavirus A Pandemic?
A pandemic is defined by WHO as a "worldwide spread of a new disease," meaning cases have been detected globally and humans have "little or no pre-existing immunity" to it. COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China late last year. Officials in China, Italy, South Korea, and more countries around the world have made efforts to contain the virus and keep it from spreading, but more and more cases continue to be reported.
"In the past two weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases outside China has increased 13-fold and the number of affected countries has tripled," Ghebreyesus said in a press conference on Wednesday. "There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people who have lost their lives." Ghebreyesus added that WHO expects these numbers to climb even higher in the upcoming days and weeks.
When Was The Last Pandemic?
Before COVID-19, the last pandemic declared by WHO was H1N1, a novel influenza A also known as "swine flu," which first emerged in the United States in 2009 and spread throughout the world.
A 2013 analysis of H1N1 found that more than 200,000 people died directly from it, according to NPR. H1N1 infected more than 100 million Americans, STAT News reported. WHO declared the virus a pandemic in April 2009, and by August 2010, health officials announced it was over.
Although H1N1 and COVID-19 have both been labeled as pandemics, they are very different. Coronavirus seems to "lead to more severe disease than seasonal flu strains", according to STAT News, especially since people have no immune protection against the new virus. In 2009, however, there were widely available vaccines to protect against H1N1. A coronavirus vaccine is still being developed.
COVID-19 Is Officially Considered A Pandemic — Now What?
While labeling the new coronavirus a pandemic may sound alarming, Ghebreyesus said it is not meant to incite fear and it doesn't change how health officials have been responding to it. Though the label should sound the alarm for world leaders to prepare and be ready to suppress the virus.
"Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO's assessment of the threat posed by the virus," Ghebreyesus said. "It doesn't change what WHO is doing, and what countries should do... We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic."
How can countries do this? According to Ghebreyesus, world leaders can slow the spread by preparing for the spread, detecting the virus, treating it, and reducing the transmission. "If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission."
Ghebreyesus also noted that is "not just a public health crisis," rather it's a health crisis that affects "every sector, so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight." As such, health officials are also encouraging people take measures to protect themselves, including frequent hand-washing, avoid touching your face, and seek medical care if you feel sick. "We're in this together," Ghebreyesus said, "to do the right things with calm, and protect the citizens of the world. It's doable."
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.