Coronavirus outbreak: What could happen if it hit the NYC subway system?

Few places are dirtier than the New York City subway, the biggest and most complex urban transportation system in the U.S. and one of the biggest in the world. And for all the very public groaning about the subway’s woes, it by and large efficiently delivers more than four million people each weekday to different destinations in the city, including to other major rail and bus hubs, which themselves take people deep into city suburbs in four states and to the rest of the country.

So what if a highly contagious virus, such as the coronavirus now flourishing in East Asia, found its way into New York’s highly efficient transportation vector?

U.S. public health officials say that there is only a “miniscule” risk of the virus now in the country, but considering the chaos coronavirus is currently causing in China — and New York’s position as a global city that many thousands of citizens with close ties to China — it’s well worth considering what would happen should coronavirus take a hold in the Big Apple. In particular, it’s worth considering how the virus could take advantage of New York’s uniquely extensive subway system as a means of travel and infection.

A typical subway car is a petri dish of bacteria, and New York City’s subway is especially potent. A 2016 survey of the subway found a whopping two million “colony forming units” (viable bacteria cells) per square inch. (By contrast, Boston’s subway has only 10 CFUs per square inch.) One reason for this disparity: New York’s subway system transports three times as many people as the next four biggest U.S. transit systems combined.

Coronavirus is relatively new, and we’re not entirely sure of all the ways it can spread. We know the virus spreads through bodily secretions, via sneezing, coughing or touching. Secretions can be left on subway polls and subway seats when people touch them — and then people who touch those infected polls could infect themselves if they touch their eyes or mouth with contaminated fingers. That’s why disciplined, thorough hand-washing is so important during an epidemic.

We’re not as clear as to whether coronavirus spreads effectively in aerosolized form. Epidemiologists do believe it can be transmitted in the air, but they’re not sure how easily. The focus on preventing infection remains on transmission by skin-on-skin contact.

But the idea of the subway as a conduit of filth may belie the facts that it’s actually not that easy to contract a flu-like virus there, in part because subway passengers rarely touch each other’s faces. The most applicable study, conducted in 2011 found that in a New York City influenza outbreak, the subways would be responsible for only four to five percent of infections.

Where are you most likely to catch a flu-like virus? At home, where family members touch each other all the time.

So can you do anything to protect yourself? The World Health Organization has ideas that will help on the subway, or anywhere:

— Wash your hands frequently.

— Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, not into your hands.

— If possible, stay as far away as possible from anyone with a fever or cough.

— See a doctor right away if you have fever, cough or difficulty breathing, and share your travel history.

— Don’t eat raw or undercooked animal products.

— Get a flu shot!

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