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COVID-19 is one more of any number of wake-up calls

A key indicator of confidence in the economy, the Dow Jones Industrial Average on the New York Stock Exchange, dropped by more than 1,000 points Monday — primarily because of fear about a cousin of the common cold.

It is COVID-19, the name public health officials have given to the strain of coronavirus that is causing disease outbreaks throughout the world, centered in China. Coronaviruses cause a variety of maladies, including many types of colds.

As of Tuesday, COVID-19 was being blamed for 2,668 deaths, nearly all of them in China. About 80,000 cases had been reported, also mostly in China.

Efforts to slow the spread of the disease included Beijing’s virtual quarantine of entire regions. Multiple industries, including shipping and travel, have been affected. Big sell-offs in stock markets appear to have resulted from fear of how widespread damage to the world economy will be from COVID-19.

There are good reasons to worry. Public health officials warn that though there are only a few dozen cases of the disease in the United States, it is virtually inevitable COVID-19 will spread here.

So, how worried should we be?

Start by understanding how dangerous COVID-19 can be. In Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, fatality rates from the disease range from 2-4 percent. Outside that area, the fatality rate is about 0.7 percent. In other words, about one of every 140 people who contract the illness may die.

Here in the United States, where the quality of health care is much better than in most other regions of the world, expect a lower fatality rate — unless hospitals become overrun with COVID-19 patients. At this point, that seems unlikely — but the situation could change.

COVID-19 is one more of any number of wake-up calls humankind has received regarding “emerging diseases.” For now, it appears that though the new coronavirus represents a serious outbreak, it will not be on the scale of, say, the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed at least 20 million — possibly 50 million — people throughout the globe.

But should we be worried in the long term? You decide: The 1918 flu was caused by — you guessed it — another coronavirus.

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