Coronavirus: What You Need to Know

photo of coronavirus lung

The new coronavirus epidemic that started in Wuhan, China, in late December is now in dozens of countries, including the United States. Here are answers to key questions about the virus, including how to protect yourself and what to expect.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

According to the CDC, symptoms of COVID-19, the disease the new coronavirus causes, may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

A recent study from the WHO that provided a more detailed list of symptoms included others such as fatigue, bone or joint pain, headache, and chills. Symptoms may appear in as little as 2 days and as long as 14 days after you're exposed to the virus.

How can you prevent and avoid coronavirus?

Three words offer the best advice: Wash. Your. Hands. Wash them for at least 20 seconds each time. Wash them before you prepare food, eat, after use the bathroom, if you cough or sneeze, and if you are caring for sick people. If you don't have soap and water, use a sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Otherwise:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Don't touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue into the trash.
  • Clean frequently touched objects and surfaces with a disinfectant cleaning spray or wipe.

Are face masks really effective in reducing the risk of being contaminated?

Generally, no. If you have COVID-19, then, yes, wearing a mask should reduce the risk of you giving it to someone else.

But if you're otherwise healthy, surgical masks provide little protection and the more sophisticated N95 masks are best left to health care workers, who are often fitted for them. Many people who wear either mask often do not do so properly -- they continue to touch their face or adjust the masks, which can actually increase the risk of getting infected. You also have to dispose of it carefully. They are also not reusable, so as soon as you touch your face or adjust the mask, or take it off once you get inside somewhere safe, you can't put it back on.

If you are around someone sick, the mask can, however, block droplets and "splash" from a cough or sneeze.

The best thing to do continues to be to wash your hands and to try not to touch your face, eyes, nose, or mouth.

How is coronavirus diagnosed?

If you believe you may have COVID-19, call your doctor's office before you go. Alert them to the situation so they can prepare for your arrival. Do not just go to an urgent care or emergency room without calling first. If your health care professional agrees you may have coronavirus, they will contact your state and local health departments. The CDC is supplying states with test kits. Each test result must be verified by the CDC before a diagnosis is confirmed.

How does coronavirus spread?

Because COVID-19 is new, there remain many unanswered questions about how it spreads. But experts believe:

  • The virus may spread from person to person, between people who are within about 6 feet of each other, and through droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • It may spread before people have symptoms.
  • It spreads from contact with infected surfaces. Touching a surface or object that has the virus and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes is one way it may spread, although the CDC says it is not believed to the main way of spreading the virus.
  • Studies to date suggest it is not airborne, so you can't catch it from breathing.
  • It spreads easily. Not all viruses do, but the CDC believes COVID-19 spreads “easily and sustainably in the community” in some geographic regions it has affected.

How long does this coronavirus live on surfaces or outside of the body?

A new study found that SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19) may last for a few hours or several days on surfaces and several hours in the air under experimental conditions. The study found it can last up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to 2 to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel. The study shows that it may be possible to transmit the infection by touching a contaminated surface or by breathing it from the air, but does not prove that air transmission actually happens under real-world circumstances. Using a simple disinfectant on all reachable surfaces is a good idea.

Is coronavirus worse than the flu?

There have been at least 29 million Americans sickened by the flu this season, compared to more than 1,600 who are known to be sick with coronavirus here. While more than 133,000 people are confirmed coronavirus patients worldwide, the numbers are still minuscule compared to the flu.

But COVID-19, the disease this coronavirus causes, may be more deadly. The flu's estimated death rate is about 0.1%, compared to the coronavirus' estimated 2%-3% mortality rate. It's difficult to know a true death rate because people may have had mild cases that were never diagnosed. A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine says for that reason, the actual death rate may be closer to the flu in a severe season. The editorial was written in part by Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The flu is also well-known to scientists and doctors, although each year's strain is slightly different. Flu treatment plans are well-established, and vaccines exist. This coronavirus is brand new, and health officials are still learning about its spread. It is also possible the virus mutates into multiple strains, as the flu has.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said there are some key differences people need to understand. First, COVID-19 doesn't seem to spread as efficiently as the flu. The second big difference is that people get sicker from COVID-19.

“While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity. That means more people are susceptible to infection and some will suffer severe disease,” he said.

Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

Not yet. And any working vaccine is at least a year away. But several research universities and drug companies are working on it. On March 16, one possible vaccine started phase 1 human trials. The trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will enroll 45 healthy adult volunteers over 6 weeks to test if the vaccine is safe. It will use different doses of the vaccine to help determine how much is needed for it to work and what the side effects might be. It's taking place at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.

How is coronavirus treated?

There is no drug treatment yet, and antibiotics are not effective against it. Experts recommend treating symptoms: Try acetaminophen for pain and fever; get rest; and drink plenty of water. Although there is no research showing that ibuprofen can have effects on coronavirus infection, the WHO originally recommended against taking it when experiencing symptoms. The agency, however, reversed course in March, announcing "Based on currently available information, WHO does not recommend against the use of ibuprofen." People with more serious cases need to be in the hospital, where they may need help with breathing and other support.

Is it safe to travel?

Advice on travel is changing rapidly. Visit the CDC website for countries flagged for travel due to the outbreak and this blog for tips if you do travel.

Can I get coronavirus from a package?

The CDC says there is likely a “very low risk” of it spreading from products or packaging shipped over a period of days or weeks. “Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods, and there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods,” the agency says. But it is always good practice to wash your hands after touching shipped objects and certainly before eating or touching your mouth or eyes.

When and where did the outbreak start?

China first reported the outbreak in Wuhan on Dec. 30, 2019.

Is the coronavirus seasonal, like the flu?

Will the coronavirus die down once warmer weather hits? It's possible, but we don't know enough about the virus yet to know for sure, says Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Most respiratory viruses, like the flu, are seasonal. Coronavirus may behave like the flu and we'll see cases go down in spring and summer, she says. “But it's premature to assume that.” The agency continues to take aggressive action because it can't count on that.

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