What you need to know about the virus and keeping yourself safe
We all know that coronavirus is spreading fast. What’s spreading even faster: misinformation and panic about the disease, which the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11. It’s time to separate fact from fiction.
Let’s start at the beginning. In December 2019, doctors in Wuhan, China, discovered a new respiratory virus they’d never seen before: SARS-CoV-2, which causes coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19. This is what we know as coronavirus, even though the word 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, R.N., 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 on the planet had been exposed to it before, so we have no natural immunity.”
While researchers race to learn as much as they can about the virus and how it’s transmitted, there’s a great deal of false information floating around—some of it dangerous. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself safe.
Fact or fiction: “If someone contracts the COVID-19 virus, they’re not likely to recover.”
Fiction. The vast majority of people who get COVID-19 will fully recover, as most will have only mild symptoms—or maybe not realize they have it at all. Others may have more severe symptoms.
“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. If your cough doesn’t improve after a week or gets worse, it’s less likely to be just a cold and may be related to corona.
- 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 typical cold that causes a runny nose and sore throat, this virus typically affects the lungs.”
- Fever. This can start out at a low of 100.2 degrees 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, R.N., senior vice president of the Prevent Epidemics team at the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives. “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. But how do you know if it might be serious? “If you have two or three of these symptoms together, it’s time to call the doctor, particularly if you have traveled to an affected area or had contact with someone else who has.”
Don’t just show up at the clinic, though. 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 ahead and then go to the ER. If you need to call 911, let them know that you suspect you've contracted COVID-19 so emergency responders can take precautions. That’s especially true if you're age 60 or older, have other chronic conditions such as diabetes or COPD, have been in contact with someone with coronavirus, or have traveled to affected countries (such as China or Italy).
Fact or fiction: “You can prevent COVID-19 by wearing a mask.”
Fiction. “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 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, demand for disposable masks has created a shortage where they’re really needed—in hospitals and doctors’ offices.
“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, ditch the mask. 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, stay at least 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 or 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.
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.”
Fact. 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 remote control to 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.
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 provider straight away.
Fact or fiction: “A vaccine for COVID-19 will be available soon.”
Fiction. 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,” she notes. “We need to make sure it’s done properly. The last thing we want is a vaccine that isn’t safe.”
The takeaway: One of the best things you can do to protect yourself and others is to get your flu shot. It won’t protect you from COVID-19, but it’s hugely important.
“The flu and COVID-19 have almost identical symptoms, at least early on,” explains Pettis. “It can be tough to tell the two apart. If we can rule out the flu, it will be easier for doctors to make the correct diagnosis.”
Plus, your flu shot will protect you against influenza, which is currently a much more significant and immediate concern for Americans. If you haven’t had your shot yet, it’s not too late. Talk about it with your doctor.
Fact or fiction: “COVID-19 is more dangerous for older adults.”
Fact. “We believe that people ages 60 and older are more likely to become seriously ill with this disease,” says Pettis. “As we age, our immune system isn’t as robust as it used to be. And as it starts to flag, the more difficult it is to fight off infection.”
The takeaway: People over 60 or older, especially those with chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease, should follow the prevention guidelines above very carefully. Call your doctor to see if you can get a three-month supply of your medications to have on hand, just in case there’s a disruption in supply—and to avoid any unnecessary trips to the doctor.
“Avoid crowded waiting rooms—you can get sick inside a health care facility,” says McClelland.
Fact or fiction: “You should cancel your travel plans.”
Possibly. 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 this writing, their guidelines advise travelers to avoid trips and 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. Overall, delaying international travel plans, no matter what the country, might be your best bet.
Fact or fiction: “You can catch COVID-19 from packages you order online that have been shipped from China.”
Fiction. 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. “Anything contaminating the package should be long gone by the time it arrives at your house.”
The takeaway: If you’re really concerned, you can wipe your package—and its contents—when they’re delivered with a sanitizing wipe.
“We’re still getting supplies from China at our hospital, and we’re not doing anything special in terms of handling them,” says Pettis. “But 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."
Not exactly. We don’t know about the soup, but we do know that the virus moved from bats to people. “COVID-19 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 the big myth to rest: There’s no individual or group of people responsible for the disease.
“You might hear that only Chinese people have COVID-19,” says McClelland. “But this has already spread far beyond one ethnic group. 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. Some of your best sources include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.