‘Exponential growth’ of COVID-19 makes containment more challenging

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The speed with which the novel coronavirus has spread makes it even more challenging to get it under control, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina said.

Dr. Kim Powers, an associate professor of epidemiology at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, says COVID-19 is “definitely showing exponential growth” with the limited data so far showing a doubling time of about six days at the start of the outbreak in China.

According to the World Health Organization’s daily COVID-19 situation reports, there were 113,702 confirmed cases across the globe Tuesday – roughly twice as many as there were on Feb. 17.

“While this rate of growth is extremely concerning, the good news is that we have proven public health measures – like isolation of known cases and quarantine of people who have come into contact with them – that can slow the spread,” Powers said.

Powers uses statistical and mathematical modeling methods to study the transmission of infectious diseases including HIV. She says the limited COVID-19 data available so far suggests that it spreads more easily than seasonal flu and “appears to lead to death in a significantly higher proportion” of infected people.

The WHO declared a pandemic Wednesday. The virus has infected nearly 1,000 people in the U.S. and killed 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Wednesday afternoon update, prompting leaders across the country to scramble to slow its spread.

Among the measures taken in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency and Duke University suspended all on-campus classes indefinitely and extended its spring break to March 22 while transitioning to “remote instruction.”

“The virus has gained a foothold all over the world in a very short amount of time, really highlighting how interconnected we are and how capable of rapid spread this virus is,” Powers said.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for others – especially the elderly and people with existing health problems – it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover in a matter of weeks, as has happened with three-quarters of those infected in China.

Working quickly and aggressively to isolate people known to have the disease is critical to prevent the number of cases from overwhelming hospitals and other public heath resources, she said.

That becomes much tougher as the number of people with the virus grows, bringing with it a strategy shift from containment to mitigation – larger-scale measures that affect a greater segment of the population, such as the closing of schools and the cancellation of events.

“Basically, the more aggressive we can be early on to slow the growth, the more time we buy ourselves to deal with the epidemic,” Powers said, “and, hopefully, the less overall damage it does to the population in the end.”

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