The U.S. was just catching up to the rest of the world's fears about coronavirus when news broke that actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had contracted the illness. The virus has become a global pandemic according to the World Health Organization, and is now a serious threat to North America. The Hankses case helped drive this point home for many people.
Hanks and Wilson were in Australia when they tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week. They were there because Hanks was set to begin filming the untitled Elvis Presley movie where he will play Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker. However, after news of their infection spread, production was halted on the film.
Hanks is widely considered one of the world's most talented and likable actors. The 63-year-old has won two Oscars and been nominated for four more. Meanwhile, his wife Wilson is equally beloved, in the worlds of TV, movies, music, journalism and activism.
It is their positive reputations that likely contributed to the impact of their coronavirus diagnoses. After weeks of wondering when the U.S. would begin taking the outbreak seriously, many saw Hanks and Wilson's announcement as the breaking point.
As always, the objective facts and actionable information about this pandemic are available on the CDC's website. In the meantime, here is a look at how Hanks and Wilson shifted the public discourse around the coronavirus outbreak.
On Wednesday, Deadline reported that "someone in the production" of the Elvis Presley movie had been diagnosed with coronavirus. The news spread quickly, with fans wondering whether it was a star they knew. Before long, Hanks took to social media with a statement confirming that it was himself and Wilson.
"Hello, folks. Rita and I are down here in Australia," Hanks' statement began. "We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too. To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the Coronavirus, and were found to be positive."
"Well, now. What to do next? The Medical Officials have protocols that must be followed," his statement continued. "We Hanks' will be tested, observed, and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires. Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?"
What is Coronavirus?
Hanks' announcement finally spurred some people in the U.S. to go looking for the truth about coronavirus from a reliable source rather than secondhand explanations. From sources like the WHO's FAQ page or a comprehensive summary published by Healthline, they learned that the coronavirus is an upper respiratory tract illness that likely originated in China.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, named for their crown-like appearance under an electron microscope. Many are virtually harmless, but this new outbreak — first detected in December — has a high mortality rate and no known vaccine yet.
This new coronavirus was originally called SARS-CoV-2, then 2019nCoV, then finally COVID-19. COVID-19 is unique because it can have an incubation period lasting 5-10 days, during which time the person is contagious but displays no symptoms. When they finally do show symptoms, they tend to be mild cases of nasal congestion, sore throat, diarrhea, bodily aches, pains and headaches.
How Do You Test For COVID-19?
Another unique aspect of this strain of coronavirus is the difficulty in testing for it. In the U.S. and some other countries, the most common test is a throat swab, which is then run through polymerase chain reaction testing, taking a few hours or up to a full day, according to a report by Live Science.
The test detects specific genetic material within the virus. Lab workers must closely examine this material, searching for two genes which prove that the sample contains the virus. If only one of the genes is found, the test is inconclusive, and if neither is found, the test is negative.
Researchers have noted that there are faster, more efficient tests out there, but they are not yet widely available. This is part of the reason many public officials around the world have been criticized, as experts argue they should have prepared ore testing kids.
In China, where COVID-19 was first discovered, researchers are now using blood samples to conduct antibody tests, but these can still take several hours.
Am I at Risk?
The coronavirus can be transmitted from human to human through coughing, sneezing and other unhygienic excretions in public places. This is why experts have been urging people to take particular care in washing their hands and not touching their faces — especially their eyes, noses and mouths.
Judging by the current trajectory of the virus, public officials expect it to continue spreading. The National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease's Dr. Nancy Messonnier told reporters this week that they are expecting the spread to continue, but emphasized that most people are not at risk of dying from the virus.
"It's fair to say that, as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time, either this year or next, be exposed to this virus. And there's a good chance many will become sick," she said. "But again, based on what we know about this virus, we do not expect most people to develop serious illness."
Still, those that do contract coronavirus have a chance of spreading it to people in high risk groups, including young children, the elderly and the immunocompromised. At the time of this writing, there have been 62 deaths in the United States due to COVID-19.
Much of this information is scary, but experts are urging people to focus on the actionable tips for stopping or slowing the spread of coronavirus. The most important tips are to wash your hands often, practice good hygiene and avoid close contact with people who may be sick, including crowded public spaces.
The CDC's website notes that people should was their hands with soap and water for a full 20 seconds, especially before and after meals and after visiting public places. They say that hand sanitizer is effective, but soap and water are preferable.
For those that may have been exposed to the virus, the most important thing is to stay at home and avoid infecting others. This is especially tricky because of the delayed onset of symptoms, so experts are asking people to begin practicing social distancing now as a precaution.
All of this information about COVID-19 was beginning to circulate, but really hit the public consciousness after news of Hanks and Wilson's diagnoses broke. After the announcement, many people looked to their children and other family members to see how they would react and what they would do next.
Hanks' son, Colin Hanks posted several outraged tweets about the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak in the last week. Colin was already an outspoken opponent of President Trump, but now all eyes were on him as he criticized the commander-in-chief.
Still, it was not all dire, as Colin did post a thankful message to fans, encouraging them to stay safe during this pandemic.
"We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from everyone," he tweeted. "My parents are receiving excellent care in Australia and are doing well (and in good spirits) given the circumstances. Despite the fact that I'm in LA and haven't seen them in over three weeks, we have been in constant contact and [I] am confident that they will make a full recovery."
Hanks' Family (cont.)
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Meanwhile, Hanks and Wilson's son Chet shared a message of his own on Instagram, saying that his parents were striking a nice balance — being cautious without panicking. He hoped fans would do the same.
"I just got off the phone with them," Chet wrote. "They both are fine. They're not even that sick. They're not worried about it. They're not trippin' but they're going through the necessary health precautions obviously. I don't think it's anything to be too worried about. I appreciate everyone's concern and the well wishes. I think it's all going to be alright. I appreciate it. Everybody stay safe out there."
There is no doubt that Hanks and Wilson's diagnoses shifted public perception about coronavirus in the U.S., especially after The Hollywood Reporter noted that the couple most likely caught the virus before leaving the U.S. This means that Los Angeles and all the celebrities gathered there could well be at risk.
Over the last week, many productions have shut down, allowing the casts and crews of TV shows and movies to practice social distancing more effectively. Some movie premiere dates have been postponed as public events have been canceled. All-in-all, it seems clear that Hanks and Wilson's diagnosis drove the severity of coronavirus home in the U.S.
For updates and tips on navigating the coronavirus outbreak, check the CDC's website frequently.