As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department. You can work to better protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.
If you’ve been following news on the spread of the novel coronavirus, a disease that is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, concern for your family’s health is most likely top of mind. After a slow-but-steady spread from China throughout Asia and into European countries like Italy, COVID-19 has largely affected the United States. As of March 18, there are more than 4,200 cases being reported across all 50 states in America, per CDC data.
Take a deep breath: The uptick of interest in the new coronavirus has seemingly doubled each and every night this week, spanning national coverage from television outlets to newspapers and plenty of posts in social feeds, leading to what can feel like a pandemonium of unbalanced commentary on the health risks associated with COVID-19. According to an early study conducted in China that was published in February in the Journal of the American Medical Association, upwards of 85% of infected people only suffered mild symptoms similar to the flu, including fever, cough, and breathing trouble. According to the World Health Organization, of the nearly 200,000 people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 across the world, more than 7,800 people have died; all in all, a death rate that fluctuates around 3.7%. But it’s important to understand that the death rates vary greatly based on age and health status. An earlier WHO report suggests that the highest mortality rate among cases in China were for people over 80 years of age (21.9%).
Believe it or not, it’s still too soon to tell how the coronavirus might truly affect Americans, especially since we’re in the midst of flu season where other viral infections can easily spread. But it’s possible the virus will impact some Americans’ day-to-day schedules in the near future. If you’re traveling — abroad, certainly, but even domestically — you may have already started to prepare for a cancellation. It’s possible that work and school schedules may also be interrupted, and public services and goods could also be impacted in the following weeks.
We’ve pulled together a panel of leading health experts from different disciplines who have all been closely following the spread of the coronavirus worldwide; each have direct experience in treating or studying viral illnesses. Here’s what you can do to prepare your family for a potential coronavirus outbreak as well as exposure to influenza or other viral infections, according to a panel of experts.
It doesn’t hurt to stock up on groceries and medicine.
You may have heard advice that you should buy up to a two-week supply of everything you normally use in the house. John Lednicky, PhD, a microbiology and virology research professor within the University of Florida‘s College of Public Health and Health Professions, explains that the recommendation stems from the fact that your community could be quarantined if multiple cases of coronavirus were to pop up, which could keep you from reaching pharmacies and grocery stores.
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But don’t go crazy trying to chase down every single can of tuna or pallets of fresh water. It’s always a good idea to gradually try and stock up on necessary toiletries, an ample supply of water, shelf-stable food, batteries, and necessary medications.
When you’re at the store, you should skip the wipes, and get some bleach.
According to Robyn Gershon, MHS, DrPH, a clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, herbal-based cleaners haven’t been shown effective against neutralizing COVID-19 on common surfaces. According to a Reuters report, new research from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases suggests that novel coronavirus can linger in droplets in the air temporarily as well as on surfaces for several days. On plastic and stainless steel, viable coronavirus could be detected after three days, research shows, whereas cardboard didn’t contain live particles for more than 24 hours. If you’re heading out to buy cleaners and other disinfectants to keep your spaces germ-free, you may be best off buying a gallon of household-friendly bleach, Gershon says, as you’ll need to frequently disinfect highly-trafficked areas of the house (think: toilet seats, door handles, railings, and sink faucet handles). Bleach is effective at killing the coronavirus on surfaces, Dr. Paul Pottinger, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington Medical Center, told NBC News.
Note that many common disinfectant products, including wipes and sprays, need to stay wet on a dirty surface for a certain amount of time to actually be effective, says Carolyn Forte, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab. “If you’re using it for a matter of seconds, it’s not going to work. You’ll want to use another cleaner in this case.” Lysol wipes, for example, can sanitize a surface in as little as 10 seconds, according to the product’s instructions; but in order to fully disinfect a surface, however, Forte says the manufacturer requires you to “leave the surface visibly wet” for at least 4 minutes. Depending on how many people live in your home, and whether or not they’re sick in the first place, you may need to change tactics from simply sanitizing something to fully disinfecting with bleach or other strong cleaning agents.
If you’d like to learn more about which cleaning supplies are best for your home, the Environmental Protection Agency has released a list of registered antimicrobial cleaners that may neutralize COVID-19 bacteria in your home. You can find the full list here, and learn more about disinfecting surfaces to target COVID-19 from Forte here.
You probably don’t need to be wearing a face mask.
Surgical masks that you can buy in most superstores or online won’t totally keep you safe from getting sick. In fact, people who are already sick should be the only ones wearing them, says Dr. Jonathan Fielding, MD, a distinguished professor of health policy and management at the University of California Los Angeles‘ Schools of Public Health and Medicine. Dr. Fielding explains that high-quality respiratory face masks (known as N95 masks by health professionals) are much different than other options currently being used by everyday people. These special masks are often reserved for doctors, and those doctors usually undergo special fitting sessions to ensure they’re as effective as possible.
The CDC recommends that people who have respiratory symptoms wear them to prevent others from getting sick, as face masks may help stem some bacteria, especially in confined spaces (wearing them outside won’t do you any favors!). “These are hard to wear all the time, especially, one could imagine, if you are sick, so the best thing to do is to keep this potentially infected household member as isolated from the rest of the household as possible,” Gershon says. “But when entering their room, say for instance, to change linens or to help them wash up, then both of you should wear a face mask.”
The CDC adds that caregivers may want to wear a face mask if those who are ill cannot: “If the patient is not able to wear a facemask (for example, because it causes trouble breathing), you, as the caregiver, should wear a mask when you are in the same room as the patient.”
You can read more of the guidance that the CDC has published on face masks and preventing COVID-19’s spread in your home.
Take note of the areas the CDC has identified as high risk.
Travel abroad is largely being discouraged by cautious health professionals, and the CDC has released official recommendations to cancel travel to mainland China and South Korea, and has previously issued travel alerts for those with chronic illnesses to avoid Italy, Iran, Japan, and a new warning for countries in mainland Europe. On March 11, the White House issued a new proclamation announcing restrictions for travel to the United States for those in Europe, and later included the United Kingdom and Ireland. According to The New York Times, restrictions only apply to non-U.S. citizens who in the last 14 days have traveled to nations within what’s known as the Schengen Area, which is a group of 26 different countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Switzerland included) that allow free movement across their borders. The travel restrictions were also updated to include Croatia, Cyprus, Turkey and Ukraine.
While many airlines are already limiting routes and working with travelers to issue refunds, you may want to check in with cruise providers or any other local tourism attractions in the next few months to discuss any possible cancellations. More locally, though, you’ll want to avoid public places if you can, especially if there’s been an uptick in coronavirus activity in your area; CDC health officials recommend simply avoiding close contact with others if sickness has become apparent in your community. Places like public parks, grocery stores, movie theaters, libraries, and shopping malls could up your individual risk for exposure. “Stay at least six feet away from a person with respiratory symptoms,” Fielding says. “Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with your fingers and cover your mouth for a cough and your nose for a sneeze.”
Use your best judgement about staying home from work or keeping the kids out of school.
Many of you may already may be practicing what’s known as “social distancing” meaning you’ve largely stayed home, away from the office, in the interest of preventing COVID-19 from spreading. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines social distancing as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”
There’s also a good chance that school has been canceled in your area. But if you’re wondering if you should keep your children home, Saskia Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC, a senior hospital infection prevention epidemiologist at HonorHealth, a health system based in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, says that kids should be kept home only if they’re sick. At the end of the day, a local uptick in COVID-19 cases may result in your local school district closing down regardless — which has been the case for many districts in the Seattle area, for example.
“I encourage children to use the same prevention strategies for respiratory virus season: make sure they’re washing with soap and water for 20 seconds, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer,” Popescu says. “Plus, teach them coughing and sneezing etiquette, as covering and coughing/sneezing into your elbow is ideal, which you can teach as a ‘Count Dracula’ approach.”
Some employees may be asked to work from home in self-isolation if they’ve traveled abroad recently. But if you’re truly worried about contracting a virus at work, the best thing you can do is work on your own immune system. Popescu and other experts say that it’s not too late to get a flu shot, which may help lessen the hold that any virus (the coronavirus or another respiratory illness) has on you later down the road.
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And remember, washing your hands is very important.
Safeguarding your own immune system is key here, says NYU’s Gershon. “Start practicing good hand hygiene now and ramp it up. In addition to washing your hands after using the bathroom (at home or work), wash your hands: before eating; after touching used tissues; after coming in from crowded areas, such as mass transit; before bedtime; before applying make-up; before and after handling contact lens, or pretty much anytime you have been or will be in contact with your mucus membranes, which are your eyes, mouth, and inside the nose.”
Currently, health experts aren’t aware if COVID-19 can be transmitted through blood, feces, vomit, urine, or breast milk, Gershon says. “But to be careful, best to protect yourself from contaminating yourself with these fluids… and wash your hands immediately if you do come in contact with other body fluids.”
Pay attention to your symptoms if you feel sick.
If you or someone in your family is feeling under the weather, you’ll want to determine their symptoms. If they are flu-like, Gershon says it’s best to keep that person isolated in a room: Don’t share meals or bedding, and avoid their dirty tissues or mucus. “Hard common surfaces in the home — everything from counters to TV remotes — are the target for immediate disinfecting. If you are not sure what to wipe, pay attention to the things you are touching in the household and put a sticky note on it to remind yourself where to clean.” If you don’t have immediate access to disinfectant wipes or sprays, you can make a substitute by mixing 1/4 of a cup of bleach with 2 and 1/4 cups of water, Gershon says.
Contact 911 if your symptoms become worse.
Nearly every expert we consulted agreed: Don’t immediately panic if you feel ill, as March is still considered a prime part of respiratory virus season, and many people could simply be mistaking symptoms of the common cold for early signs of the coronavirus.
That being said, the CDC lists the following symptoms as reasons that you should contact your primary doctor or emergency services if it becomes too challenging to manage at home:
- Shortness of breath
More often than not, healthcare providers will tell you if you should seek official in-person treatment (they may even ask you to consider tele-health options first), says Lednicky. You should avoid going to the emergency room or an urgent clinic before calling ahead first — often, there may be another route of treatment that healthcare professionals would like to explore first before admitting you to a hospital. This may help prevent unnecessary exposure for healthcare providers and keep emergency rooms free for more dire cases.
“If you have someone at home who has these symptoms and has been told to stay at home for now, the CDC recommends that you call the nearest emergency room if they are suddenly having difficulty breathing, as this may be a sign that the illness is worsening,” says Gershon. For more information on when you should seek medical attention due to potential COVID-19 exposure, keep an eye on the CDC’s official coronavirus status page, which can answer common questions and help you understand which symptoms may need immediate attention.
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