We’ve seen the images in the media: crowds of people wearing surgical masks; healthcare workers in hazmat gear; entire cities in quarantine. What’s it all about? A new respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus called COVID-19 emerged in China. It’s prudent to plan and prepare now for this virus (and any virus) that threatens. Here are simple instructions.
Please note that the COVID-19 situation is changing daily, and the information below is accurate as of this writing (February 29).
What is COVID-19?
The large family of viruses called coronavirus include some that already circulate among humans (e.g., some of our common cold viruses). They usually cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses.
However, the virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (nicknamed COVID-19) is a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not been previously seen in humans. It is believed that this coronavirus initially infected animals, but then jumped from animal to human. The first infections from COVID-19 were linked to a live animal market; the virus is now spreading from person-to-person.
At the time of this writing, COVID-19 has been confirmed in many nations outside of China, including most states across the U.S.
The Current Situation
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic (a disease that’s spread globally) which has begun sickening large swaths of the population, interrupted or shut down flows of many essential goods and services, and overwhelming the capacity of local emergency responders, doctors, and healthcare facilities. As has already happened in other countries, the virus has caused civil authorities to close schools, business, and public arenas, as well as to impose quarantines (separation of people who’ve been exposed, but aren’t yet sick) and self-isolation (separation of sick people from others).
National health agencies, research institutions, and diagnostic laboratories around the world are working to develop information about the new virus and make recommendations for action. But timely, reliable information, even the methods by which it is analyzed and reported, can change by the day, sometimes by the hour. One “official” report may conflict with another. Social media networks continue to crank out misinformation, bad advice, and conspiracy theories. It’s hard to keep up.
Let’s get the fast facts:
What We Do Know About COVID-19
- Because COVID-19 is a new virus, humans have no immunity to it.
- There’s currently no vaccine that will help prevent or lessen the severity of a COVID-19 infection and no drugs that will treat it.
- Vaccine testing is in the works, but researchers say they won’t become available for a year or more.
- There’s a test for the virus (the only way to determine for sure that someone is infected with COVID 19); there were problems with the original test—now resolved, but slowing testing in the U.S.
- The antibiotics doctors prescribe for bacterial infections don’t work against viruses.
You may wonder
Who has the most accurate information? How long does it take for symptoms to show up once a person has been infected? Can infected people not yet showing symptoms infect others? Will COVID-19 spread with increasing speed, intensify in virulence, or weaken and fizzle out? Who’s most likely to be severely affected or die of the illness?
Most importantly: What can I do to protect myself and my family and community?
Psychologists say that doing something helps relieve anxiety and keep fear from becoming debilitating. And public health experts say there’s a lot people can do to prepare for a local severe outbreak.
Prepare Now at Home
There are many ways you can take action right now to keep you and your family healthy.
- Make sure you and all household members have received their flu shots. The fewer hospitalizations and doctor visits for flu and other common illnesses, the more medical resources can be devoted to a COVID-19 outbreak, should one occur.
- Practice washing your hands properly and often, especially after returning from public places, before and after preparing food, using or helping someone else use the bathroom, handling items used by a sick person. Wash with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Always use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. Studies show people touch their faces 26 times per day. Practice not touching your face with unwashed hands for any reason (e.g., scratching an itch, brushing hair out of eyes, adjusting glasses). Then keep up your practice when you’re out and about in public places.
- Cover your cough. Practice coughing into tissues. Collect used tissues (gloves, masks) in a plastic garbage bag inside a closed metal or plastic container.
- Eat well, sleep well, get some exercise every day. Taking good care of yourself and staying healthy is the best preparation for any emergency.
- Stock up on two or three weeks’ worth of household essentials in case of quarantine or self-imposed social isolation. (See Provisioning below).
If You or Family Members Are Sick
- Stay home if you’re sick, and keep children and other family members home if they’re sick. This goes without saying, no matter what the illness (though it’s an excruciating decision for many working families, since we don’t have a national policy for sick and family leave).
- Isolate the sick person in a separate room, if possible. Keep their laundry, personal items, and drinking/eating items separate from everyone else’s.
- Monitor yourself or sick family members for fever. Keep a fever thermometer on hand for each family member.
- Use disposable gloves to collect a sick person’s towels, bedding, and clothing for the wash.Wash your hands well after removing the gloves.
- Wash and dry your laundry on the highest-heat setting dryer, or hang it to dry in direct sunlight.
- If you need medical attention, call your doctor or emergency-care center for instructions before you visit. If you’re sick, wear a mask wherever you go into a public space to limit the spread of droplets when you cough or sneeze.
When in Public Spaces During a Virus Outbreak
- Avoid crowds. Stay home if possible.
- Don’t shake hands.
- Don’t share food or drinks.
- Learn to keep your distance in social settings and even outdoors—medical experts suggest staying six feet away from others.
- If you must meet with others during a local outbreak, consider holding your meetings outside.
- Practice pumping gas, and opening doors/drawers in shared workspaces using a paper towel or other barrier.
- Wash your hands after using shared phones, keyboards, or other office equipment.
So, What About Face Masks?
*This information has been updated since the post was written in February.
As of April, the CDC has changed their recommendation regarding masks and advise all Americans that it’s pruden to wear cloth masks if they go out in public.
- Masks play a mitigating role; they do prevent people from touching their faces which is one of the main ways that people infect themselves; they touch an infected person and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth.
- However, experts warn that wearing a mask may also give a false sense of security. They simply do not prevent the entry of the tiny virus particles that cause infections. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
- Also, regular people do not need medical-grade masks which are desparately needed by health care workers who are in short supply.
- If you do plan to use masks, learn how to put on, remove, and safely dispose of them.
- Safety goggles, widely available in hardware stores, may help protect your eyes from splashes, but can’t prevent airborne droplets from getting into your eyes.
Prudent Planning and Provisioning
Imagine living for several weeks on the supplies you have on hand. Public-health authorities urge individuals and families to stock up before a local outbreak, as a matter of prudent planning, not paranoia. Add below to your shopping list or print out this page.
Food and Water
- Build a stockpile of non-perishable foods gradually; do no hoard supplies. Select items you’d eat or drink anyway and could rotate into your regular diet: canned foods, dried beans, lentils, oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, crackers, powdered milk/eggs, coffee/tea/hot chocolate.
- If you have babies, young children and companion animals, stockpile essential items for them.
- Don’t forget a supply of herbs, spices, seasonings, dressings and sauces to make your food enjoyable.
- In addition to their use in cooking/seasoning, you can stock extra salt, vinegar, and baking soda as cleaning supplies.
- Favorite snacks! Lots of snacks.
- If self-quarantining, store a minimum of a gallon of drinking-quality water per adult per day. If you don’t want to buy bottled water, buy drinking-water-safe storage bladders or barrels. Here’s a handy CDC poster on keeping drinking water safe during storage.
- An extra supply of prescription medicines and commonly used over-the-counter medicines.
- A fever thermometer for each member of the household.
- A box of properly fitting surgical gloves.
- Extra first-aid supplies you use to take care of cuts, burns, headaches, splinters, colds, constipation, diarrhea, sprains, dry skin.
- Extra toilet paper, paper towels, feminine-hygiene products, diapers (if needed), clean rags (for cleanup purposes).
- Extra toothpaste, soap.
- A supply of household bleach or other EPA registered antimicrobial for disinfecting surfaces and fabric items.
- Some hard cash; might come in useful if self-quarantining at home.
- A supply of heavy contractor bags, another of kitchen garbage bags.
- Fire extinguishers (check expiration dates).
- Wooden kitchen matches.
Using your imagination, you can find ways to make your emergency preparations frugal, (a bit more) fun, and specifically tailored to your needs and location. As you provision your own household, think of ways to help others in your neighborhood/community, e.g. distributing science-based information, helping stock a COVID-19 community food/water/supplies bank, identifying ways to help people disabilities and elderly residents prepare and manage. Stay in touch with messages from your state and local health officials.
Remember: All health emergencies and health services are local.
- World Health Organization (WHO) Coronavirus Updates
- WHO Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19)
- WHO COVID-19 Myths Debunked
- Centers for Disease Control: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
- Children and Coronavirus
- Travel Alerts
- European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
Twitter users can follow these well-known experts for up-to-date information
- Ian Mackay: @MackayIM
- Jon Cohen: @sciencejon
- Kai Kupferschmidt: @kakape
- Helen Branswell: @HelenBranswell
*Reviewed and edited for scientific/medical accuracy by Judy Stone, MD, a Maryland infectious disease specialist.