Updated at 12:37 p.m.
The COVID-19 viral disease that has swept into at least 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people is now officially a pandemic, the World Health Organization announced Wednesday.
“This is the first pandemic caused by coronavirus,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
As he announced the ratcheting up of a health emergency to its highest level, Tedros also said there is hope that COVID-19 can still be curtailed. And he urged countries to act now to stop the disease.
“WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases,” Tedros said. “And we have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”
Eight countries — including the U.S. — are now each reporting more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19, caused by the virus that has infected roughly 120,000 people worldwide.
“In the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled,” Tedros said.
Noting the rising death toll from the respiratory virus, the WHO head said, “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher.”
The WHO is “deeply concerned,” Tedros said, “both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction” by the world’s leaders in response to the outbreak.
“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” he added.
As he acknowledged the viral disease’s reach, Tedros also said people should not be fearful because of COVID-19’s status as a pandemic. He also said the term should not be taken to mean that the fight against the virus is over.
“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by the virus,” Tedros said. “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing. And it doesn’t change what countries should do.”
The WHO had declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency in January, as cases surged in China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
A severe outbreak in Italy has now caused more than 630 deaths there, and the country’s case total continues to rise sharply. It’s now at 10,000 cases, second only to China. There are 9,000 cases in Iran, and more than 7,700 in South Korea.
Those countries are all imposing drastic measures in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 illness, which has a higher fatality rate for elderly people and those with underlying health conditions.
“In the Americas, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama are all confirming coronavirus infections for the first time,” NPR’s Jason Beaubien reports. “Elsewhere Mongolia and Cyprus are also now reporting cases.”
As he declared the disease a pandemic, Tedros noted that it can also be controlled. More than 90 percent of current cases are in just four countries, he said, and both China and South Korea have been able to rein in their epidemics.
“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” Tedros said.
As the outbreak has ballooned, so has speculation that the organization would raise its warnings about the virus to the highest level. But Tedros said WHO experts had determined that the scale of the coronavirus’s impact didn’t warrant the description. And he noted that declaring the outbreak a pandemic would raise the risk of a public panic.
Tedros and others had hoped the virus would be contained, citing data from China showing that the number of new cases there peaked in late January and early February.
It’s now up to other countries, Tedros said Wednesday, to prove they can stop the disease.
“The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same,” he said. “It’s whether they will.”
“People,” Tedros said in conclusion, “we’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world.”
“It’s doable,” he added.
Coronavirus symptoms and prevention
To prevent the coronavirus from spreading, the CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer if a sink isn’t available. The World Health Organization says people should wear face masks only if they’re sick or caring for someone who is.
“For most people, COVID-19 infection will cause mild illness; however, it can make some people very ill and, in some people, it can be fatal,” the WHO says. “Older people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease or diabetes) are at risk for severe disease.”
The most common symptoms of COVID-19, according to a recent WHO report that draws on more than 70,000 cases in China: fever (in 88% of cases); dry cough (68%); fatigue (38%); sputum/phlegm production (33%).
Shortness of breath occurred in nearly 20% of cases, and about 13% had a sore throat or headache, the WHO said.
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