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Coronavirus Death Toll Exceeds SARS Deaths, People In Hong Kong Are Worried


All right. After listening to those voices, I want to bring in one of our colleagues who is covering this outbreak. It's NPR science reporter Becky Hersher, who is reporting from Hong Kong. Hi, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi. How are you doing?

GREENE: I'm OK. I just want to - I want to zero in on one thing we heard a few minutes ago, that the coronavirus - that the death toll now exceeds that from the SARS outbreak many of us remember from 2002, 2003. Can you unpack what that means?

HERSHER: Yeah, there's a lot there, actually. So that outbreak, as a comparison, the World Health Organization says that about 750 to 800 people died from SARS. So at this point, more people have died from this coronavirus than from SARS. But here's the thing - based on what we know right now, you're a lot less likely to die if you get the coronavirus than if you got SARS. It appears, so far, that most of the cases have been mild; only about 3% are critical. That said, the older you are, the more likely you are to have a severe case. So there are just a lot of unanswered questions. And, honestly, we won't know the full comparison to SARS until the outbreak is over.

GREENE: Well, SARS was, of course, a huge worry at the time, especially so where you are in Hong Kong. So what does it feel like there, and how are people dealing with the threat from the coronavirus?

HERSHER: People are taking it really seriously here. The universities and public schools are closed. They extended the holiday that just happened. Right now, it's extended until March. They'll reassess periodically. It's seen as too dangerous to let people gather in classrooms. And - I really noticed this when I was going out - if you go out into the streets - I was walking around - virtually everyone is wearing a surgical mask over their mouth, even if they're not sick. I'm feeling fine. I'm wearing one. It signals to other people that you're being careful. If you don't wear one, actually, you get weird looks. And I've noticed the city is really aggressively decontaminating things. Like, there are workers everywhere cleaning handrails and elevator buttons and metro turnstiles. Every surface that could have something on it, there's somebody wiping it down. And there are announcements reminding you to wash your hands, like, in the subway. So it's basically impossible to forget that the virus is here when you're out and about.

GREENE: I just keep thinking about what you said about the masks. It's not just containing the spread. It's, like, sending a message of, like, camaraderie and, you know, don't worry. I'm taking this as seriously as you are.

HERSHER: Exactly. And being polite, you know? Like, you don't know the people around you. You don't know what they're like. So you just say, well, I'm being polite to you by wearing a mask.

GREENE: On a larger scale, what is Hong Kong doing to try and protect people?

HERSHER: Well, for now, the borders between Hong Kong and China are still open. But over the weekend, a mandatory 14-day quarantine went into effect for anyone who's coming from China into Hong Kong. That's even if you don't have any symptoms, even if you seem perfectly healthy. If you come into Hong Kong from China, you have to spend two weeks in your house or in your hotel room. At this point, about a thousand people have had quarantine orders. And it's really slowed down traffic across the border. There are also fewer flights coming in, fewer trains. And people travelling from Hubei province to the U.S., they're also being quarantined for that same 14-day period. And that's just to make sure the same thing, to make sure they're not sick.

GREENE: All right. That's the update on the coronavirus from our science reporter, Becky Hersher in Hong Kong. Becky, thanks.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.