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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Experts Say Coronavirus Poses A Low Risk To The U.S. — So Why Are We So Afraid?

Associated Press
This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S.

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.

graph showing the total and new cases of COVID-19
Source: The World Health Organization Situation Report 31

“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.” 

The disease is thought to spread mainly from person to person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and most confirmed cases have been in China.

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.

CDC Flu estimates graphic
Credit CDC
*These estimates are calculated based on CDC's weekly influenza surveillance data and are preliminary.

Bufka has treated patients who deal with health anxiety, which can manifest as obsessive or irrational worrying about medical conditions. She said those feeling anxious about the coronavirus are probably anticipating the worst possible outcome.

"What we need to do in those situations is think through, 'how likely is it? Is it really that realistic that I'm likely going to interact with a person with coronavirus, develop coronavirus, have a really bad case of coronavirus and die?'" she said. "The likelihood is really, really, really small — but our fears magnify all that."

Bufka said people with health anxiety may go down internet rabbit holes to find answers and comfort themselves, but that can make things worse. A 2015 studyfound searching for health-related information online can increase anxiety, particularly for those already on edge.

Bufka advises sticking to reliable sources of information, like the CDC, and she said if those internet deep dives make you more anxious, it's better to unplug.

"Don't just go trolling the web looking for information, because you can get information from individuals who've perhaps had... an extreme outlier kind of experience — which then feeds into your anxiety," she said. "So really go to trusted sites to get information."

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.