Editor's note: we have updated the section on facemask usage in response to evolving recommendations from public health experts.
Coronaviruses are a “family” of viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MARS). In December, a novel (new) coronavirus began sickening people in Wuhan, China. This new virus (named “SARS-CoV-2”) — and the disease that it causes (“COVID-19”) — has now been recognized in 60 international locations, including the United States.
On January 30, 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization. For those who are elderly, suffer from a compromised immune system, or have a pre-existing medical condition, the severity of the virus’ symptoms may be heightened. Because of the rapidity with which the virus can be spread and the serious health risks associated with it, everyone should know the symptoms of COVID-19 and practice prevention best practices.
COVID-19 symptoms can vary from mild (like a common cold) to moderate (like the annual flu) to severe. So far, it appears that approximately 20% of COVID-19 cases require hospitalization for pneumonia-like illnesses, though that percentage could fall as we learn more about the disease.
Symptoms may appear within 2-14 days following exposure and can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Runny nose
- Weakness or lethargy not cause by lack of sleep
Methods of Prevention
The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to take simple daily measures to cut down your exposure to germs:
Wash your hands as often as possible and for at least 20 seconds.
Many of us are in the habit of quickly rinsing our hands and moving on but the CDC recommends slowing down and following these five steps every time:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
And when you can’t use soap and water right away, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Train yourself not to touch your face.
As hard as it can be, not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth could be one of the most effective ways of not getting sick. Studies indicate that similar coronaviruses can survive on hard surfaces for 72 hours or longer. Cleaning commonly used areas with disinfectant wipes may help to kill the virus, but don't let that lull you into a false sense of security.
Don’t hoard critical N95 respirators, but wear a face mask in public to curb asymptomatic spread.
The loose-fitting surgical (procedure) masks most of us are familiar with aren’t designed to keep viruses out, they’re designed to keep the wearer’s germs in, protecting the patient from the surgeon more than the other way around. In contrast to surgical masks, N95 respirators designed to protect the wearer must be sealed tightly to the face. For members of the general public untrained in proper use, poorly sealed or reused N95 respirators can do more harm than good.
U.S. health officials have asked members of the public to not wear face masks unless they are sick or caring for someone who is sick. However, we have updated this section to reflect scientists' improved understanding of how the virus can spread even before individuals know they're sick. Now that everyone has been urged to practice social distancing and to limit their time in large groups, wearing a face mask while grocery shopping or undertaking other essential trips can help prevent you from spreading the virus without knowing it. Widespread mask usage also reduces the stigma for those who are sick, making it more likely that they'll cover up.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently tweeted, “People who stockpiled N95 masks should donate them to their local hospital. When they do, they can be given a replacement stock of procedure masks. CDC guidance recommends people symptomatic with flu wear mask if have to travel outside. Since we know there can be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic spread of #COVID19, mask could help reduce transmission where people may not realize they're infected. ... Remember, prior guidance in U.S. discouraged a mask but it was a time when there were probably hundreds and maybe low thousands of cases (and officials maintained there was no community spread). Now there are clear hot spots and sustained transmission so risk has grown a lot."
Get your flu shot.
No, it won’t stop the coronavirus but with flu season still in full force it can help reduce the likelihood that you’ll become seriously ill with the flu at a time when the health system may be overextended. As Dr. Emily Landon writes for the University of Chicago Medicine, serious COVID-19 cases “typically require critical care and ventilation — special machines that help them breathe. And some need to stay on ventilators for weeks at a time. It’s that portion of patients that’s most concerning. Depending how many cases develop here in the U.S., providing that level of care for that many people over a number of weeks runs the risk of overwhelming the nation’s health care system pretty quickly.”
You may also be likelier to contract COVID-19 if your immune system is already fighting off one infection. Fortunately, the flu shot is particularly well-matched to the most common forms of flu circulating this year, according to the CDC.
What to Do If You Think You Have COVID-19
If you have a fever and a cough, call your primary care doctor, particularly if you live in or have recently visited community in which there has been a spread of COVID-19 from person to person contact. Additional symptoms such as “shortness of breath, unremitting fever, weakness or lethargy” could indicate pneumonia.
If your symptoms are serious but don’t constitute an emergency, call your health care provider and explain your symptoms before going into the office or clinic. Your doctor can recommend steps to help you prevent spreading the virus to others, including wearing a face mask before you come in. However, “if you or someone you are caring for is very short of breath, is minimally responsive or unresponsive, looks blue or ashen, or has low blood pressure,” the Washington Post reports, “you should call 911 immediately and travel by ambulance to an emergency room.”
If you have contracted COVID-19 but it is not bad enough for you to be hospitalized, use CDC’s guidance on how to reduce the risk of spreading your illness to others. If your case of COVID-19 is mild, you are able to rest and self-isolate within your household for the duration of your illness.
If you have either been in China, another affected area, or have been exposed to a person who has contracted the illness, there will be some limitations on your activity and movement for up to 14 days. It is important to comply with these limitations in order to prevent yourself and the public from contracting COVID-19.
Mara Lurie is an NWHN policy intern.
Sarah Christopherson, MA, is the Legislative Director for the social justice campaign, Americans for Tax Fairness, and the NWHN’s former Policy Advocacy Director. Her 10 years working for Congress and her deep knowledge of health policy and consumer protection make her the NWHN’s issue area expert on federal health reform implementation and defense, drug and device safety and efficacy, and sexual and reproductive health.
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