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7 common questions about the coronavirus answered

NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar visited TODAY to answer questions about the coronavirus that's been declared a global health emergency.
/ Source: TODAY

Worried about the coronavirus?

As global concerns over the coronavirus outbreak grow, the U.S. is taking steps to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed last week. More than 80,000 people around the world have been infected with the virus, with 53 confirmed cases here in the U.S.

On Tuesday, NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar visited TODAY to answer questions about the coronavirus, which has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

1. How dangerous is the coronavirus?

Though the coronavirus is "definitely" more contagious than the flu, it's important to remember that it usually isn't fatal, said Azar. "For flu, it's about 0.1% mortality. For coronavirus, it's about 2%. SARS was 10%," she explained.

"I think that's something people need to keep in mind because we are going to be seeing more cases in the U.S.," she said. "But for the vast majority of people, it's going to be a mild illness and, of course, the fatality number is not nearly as striking or concerning as some outbreaks we've seen in the past."

2. How quickly is the coronavirus spreading?

In just over a month the virus has quickly spread to 80,000 cases, mostly in China. "The sheer numbers of it are concerning," said Azar.

"The big unanswered question is about something called asymptomatic transmission," she said. "Can you walk around and have coronavirus and either be really mildly symptomatic and think you have a cold? Or be completely asymptomatic and transmit it?"

3. How close are we to a coronavirus vaccine?

"There's definitely a race to the finish on this one. There are a lot of companies that are vying to get this done,"said Azar. "We will probably have what are called vaccine candidates — that merely means that they first are going to test for safety — and that can happen in the spring, and by the summertime they can start testing for efficacy."

"But by the time we get something that's both safe and effective, we're looking at at least 12-18 months," she said.

4. What's the risk for a healthy adult?

"The expectation for someone who's otherwise relatively healthy and not elderly is that you would treat it the way you would treat a viral syndrome, a mild flu-like illness or even a cold with rest and hydration and things like that," said Azar.

Common symptoms are fever, dry cough and fatigue. But, in cases which became more severe, about five days later people developed shortness of breath and some developed respiratory failure. "That's important for people to keep in mind, that if you start feeling sicker at day five, six, seven, you've got to seek medical attention."

5. How are flu symptoms different from coronavirus?

Both are respiratory illnesses. "Fever, cough, shortness or breath can apply to both," said Azar. "With flu, we're very accustomed to this idea of that it starts really quickly, a lot of those aches and malaise."

"Beyond that, there's really not much to distinguish the two other than the travel history," she continued. "Prior to all these other outbreaks (of coronavirus), like in Italy or in other areas in the Middle East or even Europe, we were talking about travel to China."

She added, "I think at this point, it's safe to provide guidance to say if you have come into contact with anyone or been to an area where there's an outbreak, you theoretically could have been exposed."

6. Should I cancel my spring vacation?

It depends on where you're going as the situation is evolving.

"Our travel notices are changing almost daily as we get new information," Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the CDC, explained during a press briefing.

Currently the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China at this time, and has issued warnings and alerts for travel to South Korea, Iran, Italy and Japan. Visit the CDC travelers' health site to monitor any alerts about your destination.

Cruise lines are strengthening their passenger screening and some airlines are canceling flights to new outbreak areas.

7. What if I want to cancel my trip out of precaution?

NBC national correspondent Miguel Almaguer reported that many airlines and hotel chains are relaxing their cancellation policies, but there are no guarantees.

Almaguer stressed that the risk of contracting the virus is still incredibly low. The CDC offers advice on how to protect yourself while traveling:

  • Wash hands often
  • Clean surfaces
  • Minimize contact with people coughing or who look ill

Remember that the situation is constantly changing so continue to check the CDC for updates.