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A virologist weighs in: Brian Geiss provides insight into coronavirus

Brian Geiss, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at Colorado State University. He is a virologist currently working on the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and therefore was able to provide some insight on the subject.

Q: In your opinion, is an outbreak likely or even inevitable in Larimer County? How quickly might COVID-19 spread once introduced to the community? How might weather affect the rate of spread?

A: Given how quickly COVID-19 has spread throughout other countries and within the United States, there is a reasonable chance that the virus will spread in Larimer County in the next few weeks, although it’s tough to say how many people will be infected, how many get sick, and how quickly it will spread. People in our area who practice good hygiene (washing hands, cleaning surfaces), staying home when they are sick, and staying 6+ feet from visibly sick individuals will do a lot to help slow the spread of the virus. We don’t have the full picture about how the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads, but initial data indicates that it seems to spread similarly to influenza virus. Influenza spreads during the winter more because people tend to be inside and in closer proximity to each other, so that could affect COVID-19 spread. The low humidity may reduce the how long the virus particles are viable in the air and may reduce their infectivity, although we do not have good information on that yet. The virus normally grows in our bodies at ~98 degrees Fahrenheit, so unless it gets much hotter than that the virus likely isn’t going to be affected too much by temperature.

Q: The county’s pandemic influenza response plan projects that in an influenza outbreak, around 103,193 people in the county would be infected and between 206 and 2,167 people would die. Is this accurate to potential projections for the scenario that COVID-19 reaches Larimer County?

A:  We do not currently have a good idea of how many people in Larimer County will ultimately be infected nor what the CFR (case/fatality ratio) will be here. One average the CFR for COVID globally is about 1%, whereas the current year’s seasonal influenza CFR is between 0.04% and 0.1%. We do know that COVID-19 has a higher rate of serious infections than influenza and that it should be taken seriously should it start to spread. Additionally, with respiratory diseases early supportive treatment can go a long way in helping people recover. So if you’re sick, go to the doctor!

Q: The Larimer County pandemic influenza response plan outlines a six interval system derived from the CDC for the measurement of pandemic spread and the according responses. Are you familiar with this system? Can you provide any insight into it? Would you define the COVID-19 as a pandemic, or does it show signs of becoming one? How is this defined? 

A:  A “pandemic” is the world-wide spread of a disease. However, the term “pandemic” doesn’t refer to the severity of the disease, just how far it’s spread. The fact that COVID-19 has spread to 118 countries with ~121,000 reported cases as of March 11 would suggest that it could be called a pandemic, but it has not been officially called that by the World Health Organization. COVID-19 is a serious disease, especially for individuals who are immunocompromised, have other serious health issues (heart disease, diabetes, etc.), or who are over 60 years old. Fortunately, COVID-19 appears to not affect younger people as severely. However, younger individuals can help protect older at-risk people by taking precautions and avoiding getting infected. 

Larimer County Public Health and Environment Department
The Larimer County Public Health and Environment Department refers to its Pandemic Influenza Response Plan for coronavirus response guidelines. This plan employs a six interval system with according responses.

Q: If this scale can be applied, what phase is Larimer County in? The state? The country?

A:  We have not seen local transmission within Larimer county, and cases within Colorado are almost all travel related. COVID-19 is beginning to spread in various places around the country, but we’re at the point here where we can limit its spread by practicing good hygiene and isolating sick individuals.

Q: What measures should be taken on a local government level to contain any potential COVID-19 cases that arise? What about the individual?

A:  Testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 is critical so cases can be identified and isolated, but that can only happen if people go to the doctor if they’re feeling sick. If you feel sick, go to the doctor and then stay home from school. That’s good advice even without COVID-19!

Q: What should the average person know about the possibility of COVID-19 in Larimer County that they may not already?

A:  COVID-19 is a serious disease and should be taken seriously, but people should not panic. We can control it’s spread if we’re careful and diligent. The virus is killed by the detergents in hand soap as well as hand sanitizers with over 60% alcohol, so washing your hands and keeping things clean really does help! If you are sick, the test for COVID-19 is sensitive and accurate, although it may take a day or two to get results. If you do get tested, stay home until your physician says you can leave since if you’re infected, you could spread the virus.

Q: How prepared do you feel the CSU community is for a COVID-19 outbreak in the local area?

A:  Please See the University’s response website for information about how CSU is preparing at

Q: Is there anything that most people are confused or misinformed about regarding the virus that you would like to clarify? What message would you have for the community? 

A: COVID-19 is a serious disease, but one that we can fight if we take it seriously. Practice good hygiene and pay attention to what’s going on around you. If you have respiratory issues (i.e. having a hard time breathing), get checked out as soon as possible and stay away from others to avoid spreading. Because you are young and healthy you may not get as sick, but your parents and other older people around you may have a harder time if they get sick. Influenza virus is also currently in our community and causes symptoms that look like COVID-19, so getting tested if you’re sick can help stop the spread of both diseases.

The other thing that I want to emphasize is that while this outbreak did start in China, it could have started anywhere. It is not the fault of people of any group of people, and people of Asian descent are no more likely to have or spread the virus than anyone else. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate about who it infects or who spreads it. We’re all in this together, so let’s fight COVID-19 together.



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