Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 8 April 2020

Coronavirus: everything you need to know about Covid-19 in the UAE

From school closures to travel restrictions, the outbreak is having an increasing effect on everyday life

Cases of the new coronavirus have soared to more than a million worldwide in just over three months.

The number of known infections - and deaths - globally have now vastly overtaken those in China, where the outbreak began, and the pathogen is still spreading fast.

New cases are now being reported by the hour across the globe.

As of April 3, there were more than 53,000 deaths worldwide and 204 countries and territories have reported at least one case. More than 211,000 patients have recovered.

As the number of cases has grown, governments have acted – putting in place a series of measures designed to reduce the spread of the virus.

But infections have continued to rise at an alarming rate. Some countries have said that, in a worst-case scenario, up to 80 per cent of people could catch the virus.

Here’s everything you need to know so far:

What is the Covid-19 coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. Covid-19 is only the most recently discovered strain.

In humans, seven coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections, including the common cold and more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome – first recorded in Saudi Arabia in 2012 – and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, which swept through southern China and Hong Kong in 2002 and 2003.

Covid-19 has affected far more people.

But it is far less deadly, with a mortality rate which is believed to be around 3.5 per cent, according to an estimate by the World Health Organisation, compared with about 10 per cent in Sars and 34 per cent in Mers.

The most common symptoms of Covid-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, sore throat or diarrhoea and, rarely, a runny nose.

The elderly, and those with underlying medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. However, there are increasing reports in Italy and Spain of a rising number of patients under the age of 50 being admitted to the ICU, which experts think can be explained by the fact that hospitals are becoming overwhelmed by cases.

According to a doctor who fought the outbreak in Wuhan, high blood pressure is a major risk factor. Out of a group of 170 patients who died in January in Wuhan – in the first wave of casualties caused by the pathogen – about half had hypertension.

A study of 44,000 patients by the Chinese Centres of Disease Control found only 0.2 per cent of children and teenagers died, compared with almost 15 per cent of people above the age of 80.

What about the situation in the UAE?

The first case of Covid-19 in the UAE was identified on January 29. As of April 3, there are 1,024 cases.

In total, 96 people in the country have now recovered completely, including a Chinese family who were among the first reported to have the virus in the Emirates. Eight have died.

Meanwhile, the government is taking increasingly stringent steps aimed at controlling the spread of the virus.

A nationwide disinfection campaign is under way every night from 8pm to 6am until April 5, though authorities said this could be extended. Initially the government said anyone who had to leave their home during disinfection hours must apply for a permit, but has since suspended the process due to general compliance with the curfew.

The UAE closed all malls and markets. Shops selling essential goods including supermarkets and pharmacies remain open.

All inbound, outbound and transit flights have also been suspended, but for special repatriation flights.

Emirates and Etihad have each said they have been operating a limited number of flights outbound from the UAE for tourists who became stuck in the country after borders closed.

All travellers who entered the UAE in recent days - as part of special repatriation flights - must undergo 14 days of mandatory self-quarantine or risk legal action, the country's attorney general, Hamad Al Shamsi, said.

He said ignoring precautionary measures put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus - including quarantine - was a punishable crime.

In other measures, public and private sector employees have been told to work from home. Businesses and government offices can only contain a maximum 30 per cent of their usual staff.

The Ministry of Education has closed all schools and universities until the end of the academic year, switching to distance learning online instead.

Other recent measures aimed at limiting the spread of the virus include a ban on shisha pipes and the closure of nightclubs and cancellation of events to prevent large gatherings.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai have also closed many tourist attractions including theme parks and arts and cultural centres such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, Global Village and Qasr Al Watan.

All cinemas, beaches, gyms, public parks and electronic game centres have been closed across the country.

The measures were initially in place until the end of March but have since been extended indefinitely.

Restaurants are unable to receive dine-in guests but can still deliver food.

Since the outbreak, the UAE has completed more than 220,000 laboratory tests for coronavirus in an effort to track and trace every case.

A drive-through testing facility in Zayed Sports City, Abu Dhabi, has tested almost 3,000 people since opening on April 1.

Travel

The UAE closed its borders to all travellers except Emiratis returning home. The closure extended to UAE residents abroad, leaving some stranded in other countries. Initially the suspension of entry for UAE residents was due to last until April but authorities have since extended this measure for another two weeks.

The government has called on residents overseas to register with Twajudi, a service that was initially only for citizens.

The service makes it easier for Emiratis to contact embassy officials during emergencies.

Many Emiratis returning to the UAE will experience health checks on arrival.

The way travellers are dealt with depends on which country they come from and their travel history.

Basic testing involves walking past thermal scanners, allowing officials to spot raised body temperatures that could be caused by fever.

Some airports use handheld thermometers placed on passengers’ foreheads, which work in the same way and take moments to give a result. Nasal swabs are used for more in-depth tests.

Passengers who are swabbed may be held back until the results are ready. Any traveller who tests positive is likely be taken to a medical centre and monitored.

A number of other countries in the region have suspended all international flights, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Should you self-isolate?

Health authorities in the Emirates said anyone who returns to the UAE must self-isolate for 14 days. Similarly, anyone who has flu-like symptoms should also self-isolate.

If you have taken a Covid-19 test, you must self-isolate until the result is processed.

Authorities are generally calling for the public to social distance and self-isolate if feeding unwell.

Those who recovery from coronavirus are asked to self-isolate for another two weeks after being discharged from hospital.

Isolation, officials say, means the separation of the person who is infected, or suspected of being infected, from the rest of society “in appropriate places” for the duration of the disease to prevent its spread.

Quarantine involves “restricting the activities of healthy people for a period of time” determined by medical experts.

In quarantine, you may be asked to stay at home, away from others, monitor yourself for signs of the disease and contact a doctor if you fall ill, according to guidance provided by health authorities.

What precautions can I take?

Mostly, use common sense. Members of the public are advised to be vigilant about washing their hands, particularly in public places. Use tissues for a cough and try to avoid touching your face.

If you have responsibility for employees, make sure they do not come into the workplace if they are feeling unwell.

Some people have taken to wearing face masks, but this is not advised. Masks can lead to touching your face more, potentially increasing the chances of infection, though it can stop those who are ill from spreading the virus.

Wearing gloves is also not advised.

“Adopt preventative measures – wash hands, avoid contact with people coughing and sneezing and once you respect these measures you will reduce any risk of contamination,” Dr Nada Al Marzouqi, a Ministry of Health spokeswoman, said at a press conference on Saturday.

“As for wearing masks, we do not recommend it because they are specific for medical establishments. Masks are recommended only for those who have breathing issues but not the general public.”

What to do if you’re sick

The first thing you should do if you feel unwell and suspect you may have Covid-19 is pick up the phone and call the hospital you intend to visit ahead of time.

That way, doctors will be able to assess the risk you pose to staff and other patients. Public transport should be avoided at all costs to avoid spreading the virus further.

If you are identified as a possible carrier, the hospital will likely send an ambulance staffed with paramedics in protective clothing to pick you up.

All hospitals in the UAE are required to have isolation rooms to treat patients, so people can choose a hospital based on convenience. All treatment for the virus in the UAE is covered by the government or health provider.

Anyone suspected of suffering from Covid-19 will be isolated immediately in a room with a negative pressure air-conditioning system, which is designed to prevent germs from escaping the room.

A swab is then taken from the patient's nose and throat which is taken in a vial to an approved government-run laboratory.

Results take between 24 to 36 hours, during which time the patient will remain isolated in the hospital.

Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre is answering questions and updating residents about the latest news on coronavirus in the country through messages on WhatsApp. The number is 056 231 2171.

For more information on the virus, residents can also contact Estijaba Service on 8001717, Dubai Health Authority on 800342, or the Ministry of Health and Prevention on 80011111.

Separating myths from the reality

Rumours and misinformation have spread as fast as the virus.

Whether it is spurious claims on social media or confused or inaccurate medical advice, it has been difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Here we clarify some of the myths out there.

Claim: many people with coronavirus show no symptoms

It has been claimed that there are many asymptomatic cases out there – meaning a carrier does not display symptoms – and that this is affecting the mortality rate.

The evidence collected in Wuhan by the WHO’s trip to the city does not support this theory at the moment, according to Dr Bruce Aylward, who led the mission.

In an interview with The New York Times, Dr Aylward said many people are asymptomatic when they are initially tested, but they soon develop symptoms.

The WHO’s team retested samples originally taken as part of its broader influenza surveillance programme in Guangdong, a coastal province in southeast China.

It found less than 0.5 per cent tested positive for Covid-19 – which is around the same number of confirmed cases in the region. He said the data suggested cases were not being missed.

“There is no evidence that we’re seeing only the tip of a grand iceberg, with nine-tenths of it made up of hidden zombies shedding virus," Dr Aylward said. "What we’re seeing is a pyramid: most of it is above ground."

That is both good and bad news – bad because it means the mortality rate of 3.4 per cent is roughly accurate and good because there are not many people who are out there spreading the illness unknowingly.

But to prove conclusively that this is the case, the WHO needs to conduct surveys to check how many people have antibodies to the virus. This will likely be done at a later date.

For now, studies show that only about 1 per cent of cases are truly asymptomatic.

Claim: mild coronavirus cases are ‘just a cold’

According to the WHO, the technical definition of a mild Covid-19 case is a bit like a bad case of the flu, with symptoms including a fever, cough and possibly even pneumonia.

A severe case is defined as a rise in the breathing rate with a fall in oxygen saturation, combined with a need for oxygen or a ventilator. Critical cases result in respiratory failure or multi-organ failure.

One in five cases are classed as either severe or critical, with the rest being mild.

"I’m Canadian. This is the Wayne Gretzky of viruses - people didn’t think it was big enough or fast enough to have the impact it does," said Dr Aylward, referencing the former Canadian professional ice hockey player, who is nicknamed "the great one".

It takes people about two weeks to recover from a mild case of the virus, on average, according to experts, while people with severe or critical cases can need help to breathe for between three to six weeks.

An analysis of the 106,464 cases recorded at the weekend showed just over half have reached a conclusion – with 60,228 recovered and 3,600 deaths.

Studies show 90 per cent of people with Covid-19 have a fever, while 70 per cent have dry coughs and 30 per cent have trouble breathing. Runny noses make up a small portion of cases at only 4 per cent.

Reports suggest some people only experience very mild symptoms, although they are likely in the minority.

Claim: children do not contract the virus

Early studies suggested children are less likely to get the infection, but they could be wrong.

A new study by Shenzhen Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and Peng Cheng Laboratory - both in Guangdong - showed children are just as susceptible.

The team found that children under 10 who were potentially exposed to the virus were just as likely to become infected as other age groups.

If this is the case, it supports decisions in the UAE and elsewhere to shut schools to stem the spread of the virus.

It was also previously believed that symptoms experienced by children were overwhelmingly mild. But recent studies suggests the disease makes around 40 to 65 per cent of young patients moderately sick with pneumonia or lung problems. A study of 171 children in Wuhan, with an average age of 6.7 years, found that almost 65 per cent had pneumonia. Another 19 per cent had a cold. And almost 16 per cent had no symptoms at all. Three children required life support, all of whom had coexisting conditions. One 10 month-old baby died.

In another study of 2,143 children under 18 infected with the virus, about half had mild symptoms and 39 per cent developed pneumonia or lung problems. Around 4 per cent had no symptoms at all.

Claim: people can get the virus twice

There have been reports in China and most recently in Japan of patients who appeared to recover from Covid-19 before getting sick again, suggesting they have become reinfected.

And in Guangdong, China, officials announced in late February that as many as 14 per cent of declared recoveries in the province later retested positive.

Studies show antibodies to coronaviruses do not tend to last long, so reinfection is not outside the realms of possibility.

But some experts think reports of Covid-19 reinfections may reflect poor testing procedures as the virus takes a long time to get over.

Or it could be explained by the fact the virus is biphasic, which means it has different phases, as an anthrax infection does.

Usually transmitted from animals, anthrax typically begins with mild symptoms which worsen later. Time will tell whether Covid-19 follows the same pattern, but there have been numerous reports of people suffering a mild illness for the first week before pneumonia sets in, so it could be possible.

Claim: there is a second, deadlier strain circulating

This originated from a study conducted by Chinese scientists who compared 103 viral samples from patients with Covid-19. Their work showed there were two strains circulating – an 'L-type' and an 'S type'. The L-type was found to be more common in the samples, but the S-type was said to be the original strain.

But as the outbreak progressed, the L-type became less prevalent.

“Human intervention may have placed more severe selective pressure on the L-type, which might be more aggressive and spread more quickly,” said the scientists.

The WHO said it was too quick to jump to conclusions, saying “it’s important we don’t overinterpret” findings.

“It’s got a slightly different signature, but it’s not a fundamentally different virus,” said Mike Ryan, who is co-ordinating the WHO's response to the epidemic.

* This article will be updated daily to reflect new developments in the UAE

Updated: April 3, 2020 03:19 PM

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