What you need to know about the virus and keeping yourself safe
We all know that coronavirus is spreading. What’s spreading even more quickly is misinformation and concern about the disease, which the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11.
Let’s start at the beginning. In December 2019, doctors in Wuhan, China discovered a new respiratory virus they’d not seen before: SARS-CoV-2, which causes coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19. Coronavirus technically refers to a group of viruses, the first of which was discovered in the 1960s.
“SARS-CoV-2 is brand-new,” explains Ann Marie Pettis, RN, director of infection prevention for University of Rochester Medicine Highland Hospital and president-elect of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. “No one has been exposed to it before, so we have no natural immunity to it.”
While researchers are hard at work learning as much as they can about the virus and how it’s transmitted, there has been a great deal of false information floating around—some of it dangerous.
Here’s what you need to know about the COVID-19 virus and protecting yourself.
Fact or fiction? “If someone contracts the COVID-19 virus, they won’t recover.”
The vast majority of people who get COVID-19 will recover, as most people who get COVID-19 will only have mild symptoms and may not realize they have had it at all.
“It’s very hard to pin down,” says Pettis. “There’s a wide spectrum in the way the disease presents itself in different people.”
These are the symptoms to look out for:
- Cough. It is often a dry cough. Pettis notes that the type of cough, and duration, varies from one person to the next.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Again, the severity can vary—some people may experience breathing troubles when they’re climbing stairs, while others may have the same symptoms while they’re sitting down. The cause? “Fluid in the lungs,” explains Pettis. “Unlike a cold, this virus typically affects the lungs.”
- Fever. This can start out a low of 100.4 and often climbs higher. However, as Pettis adds, the severity of the fever can vary.
“We’re still learning a lot about the disease,” says Amanda McClelland, RN, senior vice president of Resolve to Save Lives Prevent Epidemics team. “From what we know now, most people are experiencing mild illness.” She notes that about 20 percent of cases are more severe.
The takeaway: Most people who get COVID-19 will recover. “If you have two or three of these symptoms together, it’s time to call your health care provider, particularly if you have traveled to an affected area or had contact with someone else who has,” says Pettis.
Don’t just show up at the clinic, though. Call your health care provider or state/county health department. To reduce exposing other patients to the virus, many providers will be practicing telemedicine—evaluating your condition over the phone or via a video call.
If the symptoms are severe—like you find yourself gasping for breath—call your health care provider or the emergency room. If you need to call 911, let them know that you suspect you might have COVID-19 so that emergency responders can take precautions. That’s especially true if you’re over 60 or have other chronic conditions such as diabetes or emphysema, have been in contact with someone with COVID-19, or have traveled to affected countries (such as China or Italy).
Fact or fiction? “You can prevent COVID-19 by wearing a mask.”
“Wearing a surgical mask to protect you from COVID-19 can be a dangerous misconception,” says Pettis. “We’re not confident that it actually provides protection from the virus droplets or possible airborne spread of the disease.”
Why? Turns out, those paper masks don’t fit tightly enough to keep droplets of the virus out of your mouth, nose, and eyes—the main portals into your body.
Plus, Pettis adds that the demand for disposable masks has created a shortage where they’re really needed—in hospitals and doctors’ offices and for emergency personnel on ambulances.
“Health care professionals need masks because they’re doing all kind of invasive, intimate things, from bathing patients to inserting IVs,” explains Pettis. “But in my hospital, we’re struggling to get appropriate masks while people are stockpiling them or taking them from waiting rooms. When members of the public use masks inappropriately, it places health care providers at a terrible risk.”
The takeaway: Unless you’re a medical professional who truly needs it, or if you’re sick and need to go out in public for whatever reason, do not stock up on masks.
Instead, here’s what you can (and should) do to protect yourself, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Avoid close contact with sick people. If possible, try to stay about six feet away.
- Stay home if you are sick. While sick, limit contact with others as much as possible.
- Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched or may be contaminated with germs. Studies so far show that the virus can live on hard surfaces, like countertops and remote controls, for several days.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol.
- It is also advised that people at high risk avoid cruise ships. In addition, carefully consider any plans to visit nursing homes.
If you feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, have traveled to an affected country, or been in close contact with someone with the current coronavirus in the 14 days before beginning to feel sick, call a medical professional right away.
Fact or fiction? “You can contract COVID-19 by simply being near someone with the virus.”
Microscopic droplets that spread the coronavirus from human to human are released into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If you’re within six feet of someone who’s sick with COVID-19, those little droplets can make their way into your mouth, eyes, or nose, and from there they can travel into your lungs.
Even an infected person with only mild symptoms of COVID-19—or no symptoms at all—can spread droplets to others, although it is thought that those who are the sickest are the most contagious. However, some reports have shown that the virus can be spread before infected people show symptoms.
Those droplets can also land on surfaces—from a kitchen counter to a cell phone to a remote control, or even a stair railing. If you touch a surface that contains those microscopic droplets, and then place your hand near your mouth, eyes, or nose, you could potentially bring the COVID-19 virus into your body too. However, the CDC says this is not the main way the virus spreads.
It is thought that the main way the virus spreads is through person-to-person contact, including the following:
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
- Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
The takeaway: Use the best practices listed above from the CDC to stay safe. If you’re at all concerned that you might have contracted the COVID-19 virus, call your health care provider right away.
Fact or fiction? “A vaccine for COVID-19 will be available soon.”
Researchers are working on developing a vaccine, but according to McClelland, it won’t be ready for 12 to 18 months. “It takes time to test a vaccine. We need to make sure it’s done properly. The last thing we want is a vaccine that isn’t safe.”
The takeaway: Although Phase I testing for a COVID-19 vaccine is expected to begin in the next several months, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself and others currently is to get your flu shot. It won’t protect you from COVID-19, but it’s hugely important to protect you against certain strains of the flu. “The flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, at least early on,” explains Pettis. “It can be tough to tell the two apart. If a patient has had their flu shot, it will be easier for doctors to make the correct diagnosis.” A flu test could also be conducted to help when diagnosing a patient.
The flu is currently a significant and immediate concern for many Americans. If you haven’t had your shot yet, it’s not too late. Talk about it with your doctor. To get your vaccination, use our Find a Doctor tool to find an in-network doctor, retail health clinic, or an in-network pharmacy location.
Fact or Fiction: “You should cancel your travel plans.”
The list of destinations to avoid is continuously changing as the disease progresses. However, the CDC produces a daily list of high-risk locations. As of March 9, 2020, their guidelines advise travelers to avoid any trips or cruises to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. Japan is another area of concern.
The takeaway: As the situation continues to evolve, visit the CDC traveler health site for the most updated information about travel.
Fact or fiction: “You can catch COVID-19 from packages you order online that have been shipped from high-risk locations.”
Though the studies are somewhat limited thus far, Pettis notes that most experts believe it’s not a risk to handle packages coming from countries with known COVID-19 infections.
The takeaway: If you’re really concerned, you can wipe your package—and its contents—when they’re delivered with a sanitizing wipe. Pettis says, “Studies have looked carefully at how to kill these germs on surfaces, and the virus seems to respond to most disinfectants.”
Fact or fiction: "COVID-19 started out in a pot of bat soup."
We don’t know about the soup, but we do know that the virus moved from bats to people. “The virus seems closely related to other viruses from bats—that’s how these new viruses originate,” says Pettis.” There’s currently no convincing evidence that it was intentionally released.”
The takeaway: There’s a lot of misinformation floating around, but let’s put a big myth to rest: There’s no individual or group of people responsible for the disease.” says McClelland. “this has already spread far beyond one country. Casting blame is stigmatizing and alienating.”
COVID-19 is a global problem, and we’ll solve it more quickly by working together.
It’s more important than ever to arm yourself with solid, reliable information. You can review this report from Independence Blue Cross, which is updated as new information about the coronavirus comes along. Some additional sources include the following:
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center
- State and county health department websites