Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part report on COVID-19, featuring local epidemiologist Dr. Bonny Specker.

COVID-19 is very contagious and is more deadly than the seasonal flu, said Dr. Bonny Specker, an epidemiologist with South Dakota State University.

About half the people with COVID don’t have symptoms but can still infect others, she said. 

And several times more South Dakotans have died from COVID than died all last year from the flu, Specker said.

Keeping up with COVID-19

COVID-19 is a new disease, and health officials are still learning about it – sometimes nearly day by day, Specker said.

One of the biggest things they’ve learned is how it was being spread.

There were two studies, one done in Iceland and the other in Italy, where researchers took random samples from the population and tested them for COVID-19. 

“What they found is that of the positive cases that they identified, the people that had COVID … it was like 45%, had absolutely no symptoms,” Specker said.

“Well that kind of throws (in) a big wrench, when you figure there’s 50% of the people who actually are infected – and infectious … who could be giving other people the disease – don’t even know they’re sick,” Specker said.

Yet, they can still spread the disease.

“The whole thing with the masks isn’t to protect you, it’s to protect other people so be considerate of other people’s right to not be infected,” Specker said. “It really helps not spread it.”

Contagious

In a presentation that she’s prepared, Specker compares how contagious COVID-19 is compared to common diseases like chicken pox, measles, the common cold and the seasonal flu, alongside very deadly diseases like smallpox, MERS, bird flu and Ebola.

“Measles is probably the most contagious of all … it spreads very, very fast,” Specker said.

Those last four may not be as easily spread as measles but are much deadlier. COVID is somewhere in between, according to what we know now.

“New coronavirus: Most estimates put the fatality rate below 3%, and the number of transmissions (by each sick person) between 2 and 4,” according to the graph from late March.

There are three coronaviruses that affect the lower respiratory tract, Specker said: SARS, MERS and SARS2. 

Approximately 20% to 30% of people who contract SARS will require a ventilator; 10% will die, Specker said.

MERS is even more fatal, but there’s fewer cases of it because it cannot be transmitted human to human; the only way you can get it is from an animal.

“It’s like 30-some percent of the people who get that virus will die,” Specker said.

“SARS2 is the one that causes COVID,” Specker said. 

Deadlier than flu

When asked if COVID is more dangerous than the flu, Specker’s answer was simple, “Yes.”

When asked if the death rate for COVID is higher than for seasonal flu, she said, “Definitely, and it is more contagious than the seasonal flu.”

SARS2 is thought to have a case fatality rate of 2.6%, “which means of those people who get the disease, 2.6% of them are gonna die,” Specker said. 

Her presentation compares the death rate of COVID to that of the seasonal flu, which she said isn’t very contagious.

“The case fatality rate last year for flu was .2%,” Specker said.

COVID is a different story.

“At first, they were thinking (the death rate) was between .1% and 3%. Now, the estimates, depending on who you talk to, can go anywhere from 1% to 5%,” Specker said.

H1N1 caused the flu outbreak in 1918, she said.

“That one came back in 2009 and the case fatality rate in South Dakota was 1%. And we’re averaging about 1% in flu mortality. The median number of deaths per year for flu between 2010 and 2020 in South Dakota has been 32 per year,” Specker said.

So far, 135 people have died from COVID-19 in South Dakota in just under five months.

“And it is not going down, that’s for sure,” Specker said. 

Different ages, different illness

COVID is affecting people differently, according to their age, Specker said.

“There are estimates of mortality,” as well as hospitalization, ending up on a ventilator, and how many will die, she said.

“There’s a definite increase with increasing age, but there still are deaths in the young and those are now starting to look very different than how the deaths in the older people occur,” Specker said.

Older people tend to have more health problems than younger people, but younger people can have health conditions, as well, which raise a patient’s chance of dying.

“There’s about 35% of the population of South Dakota has a pre-existing condition that will lead to a bad outcome with COVID; puts them at a greater risk,” Specker said.

Even if they have no pre-existing conditions, younger people can face terrible complications and death.

“(Blood clots) are happening to younger people more than the older people, so it’s affecting the different ages differently,” Specker said.

“Younger people tend to have more strokes (with COVID),” she said. “This virus is affecting clotting so there’s more blood clots, which are leading to the strokes,” she said.

Some children are contracting Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children or MIS-C, Specker said. 

MIS-C is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cause is not known, but many children with MIS-C had the virus that causes COVID-19 or had been around someone with COVID-19. 

“MIS-C can be serious, even deadly, but most children who were diagnosed with this condition have gotten better with medical care,” according to cdc.gov.

“So, it acts very differently depending on the age of the person, which kind of makes sense,” Specker said.

Reason to hope

Although there are no vaccines or treatments now, Specker thinks they are not far off.

“There are probably more treatments becoming available every day,” she said. 

The ones she knows about treat the symptoms of COVID, but they don’t cure it. 

“There’s nothing that actually kills the virus that I’m aware of,” she said. “There are ways that they’re finding of treating the symptoms (to) keep people alive.”

Those who survive might face lifelong health consequences, she said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at jgreiner@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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