Use common sense and practice basic hygiene. This virus needs to be taken seriously, but don't panic.

COURTESY PHOTO: DREAMSTIME - A woman wears a face mask in public. Public health officials say that face masks can reduce the risk of a wearer who is infected passing the virus on to others, although their effectiveness is very limited when worn by people who haven't contracted the virus.It was probably inevitable that COVID-19, a new viral disease caused by a novel strain of coronavirus, would arrive in Oregon.

To all appearances, the disease is less lethal than its cousins, SARS and MERS. That means that if you get it, you're less likely to develop complications — or die — than victims of those epidemics were. But because this new coronavirus doesn't cause rapid and widespread death, and especially because it seems that many of its carriers won't develop symptoms at all, let alone severe symptoms, it has an easier time propagating widely.

To date, three Washington County residents are being treated for the disease — two in Hillsboro and another in Japan. A fourth Oregonian is being treated in eastern Washington. There will be more cases of COVID-19 in Oregon. Just to our north, in Washington, public health officials worry the virus may have been spreading for some time before a spate of confirmed cases last week.

What we shouldn't do is panic.

Concern is reasonable, and taking precautions is wise. This is a brand-new disease that isn't fully understood and doesn't have a proven treatment, cure or immunization yet, and likely won't for months to come.

But we already deal with a seasonal disease that is similar in many ways to COVID-19. There are medications for the flu, and free vaccinations against the flu are widely available — things that simply don't exist at this point to ward off COVID-19. And while the mortality rate of COVID-19 isn't known yet, pathologists believe it is several times more lethal than the flu.

But the coronavirus and the virus that causes the flu are believed to spread in similar ways, they have similar symptoms, and while the flu is not nearly as deadly as it was before modern medicine caught up with it, tens of thousands of Americans already die every year from the flu and other respiratory ailments.

That probably doesn't do anything to cheer you up. But it's nonetheless worth keeping in mind. Although COVID-19 itself is new, we know how to minimize our risk of exposure to this sort of disease, and we know how to minimize our chances of spreading this kind of virus.

To review:

• Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water. Public health authorities recommend you wash for 20 seconds or more and scrub diligently.

• Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Using a tissue, and then discarding that tissue, is safest. If you cough or sneeze into your hand, then wash your hands.

• If you are experiencing cold- or flu-like symptoms, stay home from work or school and minimize contact with others. If you experience difficulty breathing, inform a medical professional right away.

• Disinfect surfaces, especially hard surfaces, regularly with a cleaning agent.

Beyond the basics, though, think about relatives, coworkers, neighbors and community members who may be particularly vulnerable to this viral illness.

The elderly population is likely to be hardest hit by the coronavirus, and some people may want to reduce their risk of exposure by not going out while the virus is believed to be spreading in the community. If you have older neighbors, or neighbors you know to be medically fragile, you may want to check on them and make sure they have medicine, food and other essentials.

As for your own shopping habits, bear in mind that a viral outbreak will hurt small businesses the most. At least one prominent Hillsboro business has already closed its doors out of an abundance of caution for its clientele. It likely won't be the last. Small businesses are rarely well-equipped to deal with a rash of illnesses, and they often have slim profit margins that can be dramatically affected by supply-chain issues.

There have been reports across the country about some minority-owned businesses — Chinese restaurants, as an example — seeing a dramatic decline in customers because people believe, without basis in fact, that they are vectors for the coronavirus. In truth, there is no evidence that this virus discriminates between people on the basis of ethnicity, or that it is being spread through minority-owned businesses in particular.

Consider supporting small businesses at this time. It's always important, but especially now, small businesses will be grateful for customers.

Finally, we can't stress enough the importance of paying attention to public health authorities. As the coronavirus spreads, there is no shortage of misinformation that is spreading with it.

Some of this misinformation takes the form of attempting to explain the origins of this little-understood new virus. Forget the conspiracy theories — there is absolutely no evidence that this virus was artificially created, and it's not true that this virus is a "hoax." Pathologists believe that this coronavirus, like others before it, "jumped" from animals in China, naturally adapting to infect humans. The purpose of a virus is to replicate itself, and viruses evolve and mutate, which is how we end up with new types of virus.

Some of this misinformation takes the form of attempting to fill in the answers to questions like "how bad is it?" and "how do we treat it?" Beware the snake oil salesman. There is no known treatment at this time, and when a treatment is developed, it is overwhelmingly likely that it will be produced through a rigorous scientific process, including live trials and quality assurance, rather than coming out of some blogger's kitchen cabinet. Don't be fooled by claims of a "miracle cure," as many of these can do far more harm than good.

And some of this misinformation, unfortunately, takes the form of misleading people about what is happening now, or what is likely to happen. The coronavirus is neither "no big deal" nor "the end of the world." COVID-19 should be treated as a serious illness. Although it is comparable in some ways to the flu, and techniques to prevent its spread are largely the same as those for the flu, it is not the same as the flu. The flu is more widespread than COVID-19, but it's not "worse" than COVID-19, which appears to have a significantly higher mortality rate and doesn't have a cure or vaccine yet. On the flip side, the spread of the coronavirus does not mean we are all going to die, and any doomsday prophet presenting it as an extinction plague should be tuned out. Most people who are infected with the coronavirus will experience little to no symptoms, let alone symptoms severe enough to be life-threatening.

The spread of the coronavirus is serious and sobering. But if we keep our heads, use common sense, and act with compassion and forethought, we can weather this storm together.

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