SALT LAKE CITY — The World Health Organization is now calling the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic. The announcement comes against the backdrop of nearly 122,000 lab-confirmed cases worldwide and more than 4,000 deaths.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in announcing the designation.

WHO defines a pandemic as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” The organization does not consider seasonal outbreaks of influenza a pandemic, it notes.

It is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.

The new designation means focus will shift somewhat from containing spread to managing cases, but it doesn’t mean the fight to prevent spread is over, Tedros said. “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.

Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist, said changing the status of COVID-19 to a pandemic doesn’t alter how public health officials will approach the illness or try to contain its spread.

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According to a worldwide COVID-19 tracker created by Johns Hopkins University, China has the most cases, at nearly 81,000, with more than 3,000 deaths as of Wednesday morning. Italy has more than 10,000 cases and 631 deaths so far. That country is now basically on lockdown. Iran has 9,000 cases with 354 deaths.

More than 1,050 people in the United States have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and at least 23 people have died. Numbers vary depending on who is counting.

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever (88% of cases, according to WHO), dry cough (68%), exhaustion (38%) and excess phlegm/mucus (33%). About 1 in 5 cases studied include shortness of breath, while 1 in 8 include sore throat or headache.

Washing hands often, avoiding handshakes, staying away from others when you’re sick and avoiding crowds have been deemed essential to preventing spread of this novel coronavirus. The Deseret News has created a simple video that outlines managing the illness. People are also urged to prepare to be at home for two weeks or more if they get sick by making sure they have enough food and medicine on hand.

The Chicago Tribune wrote that “by reversing course and using the charged word ‘pandemic’ that it had previously shied away from, the U.N. health agency appeared to want to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.”

“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” Tedros said.

For information on the illness, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or