In recent months, a new coronavirus disease called COVID-19 has spread from where it was first detected in China to dozens of other countries. Now, cases have been reported in every U.S. state.
As the outbreak hits closer to home — and the news coverage becomes more alarming — you might wonder what this means for you, your family and your community.
“Like any novel infection that’s reported, it’s certainly a public health concern,” says Steven Gordon, MD, Chairman of the Department of Infectious Disease. And there is still much to learn about this new coronavirus disease.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that “the immune response to COVID-19 is not yet understood.” Because this is a new strain of coronavirus, scientists are still collecting information and research on the virus.
As the situation continues to evolve, infectious disease specialist Frank Esper, MD, encourages people to stay informed and follow common-sense practices like proper hand-washing to reduce the spread of viruses.
“This virus warrants our attention because it can cause very severe disease — but in 80% of people who get it, it does not,” he says.
What is coronavirus?
Coronavirus is a family of viruses that are common in people and animals. They can cause a variety of illnesses, ranging from the common cold to severe pneumonia.
Coronaviruses spread from person to person through droplets released when people who are infected cough or sneeze. These infected droplets can land on people nearby, who can then become infected if the virus gets into their body through their eyes, nose or mouth.
So you could get COVID-19 from coming in close contact with an infected person who is coughing and sneezing, Dr. Gordon says. Experts also suspect that you can get it from touching a surface that has been contaminated with virus-containing droplets.
Because of this, the CDC recommends that people who have or might have COVID-19, or anyone caring for someone who has it, wear face masks to prevent the spread. However, you do not need to wear a face mask if you are not sick.
How do I know if I have COVID-19?
Symptoms are what one would expect from a typical upper respiratory infection, including cough and fever. Some people also have other symptoms that mimic the flu, such as muscle aches, sore throat or diarrhea, Dr. Esper notes.
“Unfortunately there is no truly identifying feature of this coronavirus that separates it from other viruses out there,” he says.
Most people who contract the virus will have mild symptoms and can recover on their own at home. But people over age 50 and people who have heart disease, lung disease or weakened immune systems seem to be more at risk for serious infections that could lead to pneumonia and difficulty breathing, Dr. Esper says.
The only way to confirm that someone has COVID-19 is through a swab test. Efforts are underway to make testing more widely available in U.S. hospitals and healthcare facilities. Because of this, Dr. Esper expects to see an uptick in the number of cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed and reported.
However, the CDC currently considers the immediate health risk to the American public to be low.
The priority: Prevention
While there is no specific treatment for COVID-19, the best way to protect against it and any other upper respiratory infection is to practice good cold and flu season hygiene, Dr. Gordon says.
Actions to prevent the spread of viruses include:
- Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Properly covering your nose and mouth with a tissue or your sleeve when you cough and sneeze.
- Staying home from work if you’re not feeling well, whether you think you have something extremely contagious or not.
- Wear a cloth face mask in public, especially in places where it’s hard to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and another person. Cloth face masks are being recommended because we now know individuals with COVID-19 could have mild or no symptoms, while still spreading the virus to others. The cloth face coverings recommended by the CDC are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators, which should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders.
- Disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched, like doorknobs and handles.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your face to prevent the spread of viruses from your hands.
- Follow travel guidelines from the CDC.
If you think you may have been infected with the coronavirus, call your healthcare provider. They will ask about your symptoms and recent travel, and recommend what next steps you should take.