Dr. Philip Huang knows North Texans are worried about the potential spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“I think that’s a lot of what causes the anxiety,” Huang said. “This is new. It’s unknown. We’re saying all along that we still don’t know all the severity, how easily it’s transmitted. … New things can sometimes be a little more scary.”
But as the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, Huang maintains the disease poses a low risk. Texas has seen one confirmed case. Across the country, just 15 cases have been confirmed.
Huang said local leaders are following the proper protocols for prevention. Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is screening travelers for the coronavirus, and Huang said Dallas County Health and Human Services is trying to squelch rumors.
Because the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, some have spread misinformation that people of Asian descent are more susceptible. That’s just not true.
“Just being a particular race or ethnicity is not a risk factor for this,” Huang said, “but it’s actually having been in the affected areas or being exposed to someone who has the virus.”
Huang said he’s seen misinformation spread about other foreign diseases. There was similar panic around the SARS epidemic, the bird flu and Ebola. Huang thinks the outsized reaction stems from feelings of uncertainty and a lack of control. He also said pop culture depictions of mysterious new illnesses can contribute to those overblown fears.
“Sometimes the movies portray these outbreaks of deadly viruses,” he said. “You need to keep in perspective what we know, and know that the public health community [is] trying to do things to try to prevent this.”
At the same time, Huang is reminding residents of another public health risk. Dallas County is in the middle of flu season, but it’s hardly generating the same public anxiety.
Psychologist Lynn Bufka is senior director for practice, research and policy at the American Psychological Association.
“For most people, their experience of the flu is they’ve had it or they know someone who’s had it, it’s not been pleasant, but they’ve recovered, and life goes on,” Bufka said.
The CDC estimates at least 26 million Americans have gotten the flu this season, and at least 14,000 have died. Because it’s a familiar disease though, Bufka said there’s less fear and uncertainty surrounding the flu. Most people can wrap their minds around it.