The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has infected dozens of Americans and thousands more across the world.
While scientists are working to contain the outbreak and come up with effective treatments, health experts say people can still prepare and guard against infection. ABC News spoke with health experts to provide the latest information on how to stay safe as the disease spreads.
1. What are the symptoms?
Novel coronavirus can cause symptoms that range from mild to severe, including cough, fever and shortness of breath. Since the symptoms are similar to those of pneumonia, influenza and the common cold, only a diagnostic test can confirm whether an individual has coronavirus.
2. How is it transmitted?
The first cases of COVID-19 were believed to be linked to a live-animal market in China, but the virus has since been spreading from person to person.
Person-to-person transmission is mostly likely between people in close contact, about 6 feet. When a person infected with novel coronavirus sneezes or coughs, respiratory droplets could land on people nearby or could possibly be inhaled by those people.
While it’s possible the virus could be transmitted by touching objects or surfaces contaminated with COVID-19, health experts don’t currently believe that’s primarily how it’s transmitted.
3. I live in the United States. What should I do?
While there are no clusters of COVID-19 in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that Americans should prepare for transmission of the virus within some communities in the near future, potentially leading to a significant disruption in citizens’ daily lives.
The CDC advises making a plan, telling schools and businesses to have systems in place for teleschooling and working remotely if face-to-face interactions must be restricted.
Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, suggested sitting down and outlining a plan for how your family might handle schools and businesses closing. Does an older relative take prescription medication? Now might be a good time to stockpile at least two weeks’ worth.
Call schools and ask if there are plans for teleschooling. Figure out a childcare plan in the event schools close, and ask about teleworking options. Asking more questions now hopefully means asking fewer later.
For now, the CDC recommends Americans uphold proper flu season hygiene. Wash your hands often, stay home from work if you’re sick and cough or sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand.
4. Should I wear a face mask?
Not unless you are the one who is sick.
The CDC doesn’t currently recommend any healthy person wear a mask and doctors warn fiddling with putting on and taking off a mask could backfire by exposing your hands to your face.
“Surgical masks fit rather loosely around the face and are not constructed, nor thick enough, to prevent infection,” Schaffner said.
While they could have a modest benefit, any protection they provide is likely more psychological than scientific. N-95 masks, which hospitals use, are expensive and aren’t easy to wear, meaning they’re not a practical option for everyday use. As health officials have noted, masks should be reserved for the health care workers, not the general public.
“The other thing a mask can do is give you a false sense of security, and that’s not helpful,” said Dr. Michael Merson, a visiting professor at NYU’s School of Global Public Health and a professor at Duke University. Masks work better at preventing people who are coughing and sneezing from spreading respiratory droplets and infecting others, but “those people who are sick should probably be at home anyway.”
5. Should I be tested for the virus?
It’s probably not up to you.
While the CDC is trying to roll out testing capabilities to states, we’re not at that point. If you have symptoms, such as a cough or fever, but no travel history to an outbreak area, you could go to a clinic and have a rapid test done to rule out more common viruses, such as influenza, Merson advised.
If you have traveled to an area with local transmission or have been in close contact with someone who has been exposed to the virus, and develop symptoms, your health care provider can work with the local health department to determine whether you should be tested for COVID-19. Few people are expected to fall into that category.
6. Should I cancel my upcoming trip to Europe or Asia?
That depends. How risk averse are you?
The U.S. State Department provides travel advisories that include up-to-date recommendations about which countries have reported cases of COVID-19 and how widespread disease transmissions have been. The situation is fluid and rapidly evolving, so you should check back often and use that information to inform what’s essentially a personal decision.
In addition to considering whether the country in question has seen a significant influx of COVID-19 cases, think about the situation on ground. Has travel within the country been disrupted? How would you feel about the potential of being quarantined upon your return to the United States? If it’s a work trip, would the situation on the ground make it difficult to be productive?
The answer may be different for different people. Schaffner, for example, noted that Italy is a big country and that he would feel comfortable traveling to Rome, since the epicenter of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak has is clustered in the northern part of the country. His wife, on the other hand, would not.
“She doesn’t have that risk tolerance,” he said.
7. Do quarantines work?
“The short answer is apparently, yes, and better than we thought,” Schaffner said.
After China imposed strict quarantine and lockdown measures in hard-hit Hubei province, new cases of COVID-19 appeared to decline, Schaffner explained.
It’s too soon to know the full effect of that quarantine, which is essentially an unprecedented public health experiment. And imposing strict quarantine measures on an entire community may not be replicable outside of China.
“Try doing that in New York,” Schaffner added. “Ain’t gonna happen.”
8. Will the outbreak turn into a pandemic?
The World Health organization defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease,” and with clusters of COVID-19 in countries around the world, including extensive transmission in a number of them, we’re certainly on the precipice of that reality.
For the United States, more transmissions in more countries raises the possibility that there will be similar local transmission of the virus here.
“A lot of us have been sitting back and watching this from a distant place,” Schaffner noted, adding that the game has changed in recent days. He cautioned against “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” and recommended thinking ahead. A large increase in cases in your community could mean school closures or other changes to your routine.
“Be prudent and be prepared to participate as much as you can in social distancing when that becomes the order of the day,” he said. If health authorities advise against mass gatherings, for example, don’t make a fuss. Widespread transmission is making threat of a pandemic more real.
“It shouldn’t panic you,” Schaffner said. “But it should get your attention.”
9. How concerned should I be — how does COVID-19 compare to the flu?
Concerned enough to pay attention. Stay on top of CDC updates and guidance, as well as from state and local health departments. Take the time to sit down and plan for what you’ll do if local transmission of the virus occurs in your city.
Even the experts aren’t completely sure what’s going to happen.
“It’s hard,” said Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, who described receiving a text message from his son earlier in the day that asked whether he should stock up on canned goods.
“I would be included not to,” Perlman said. “We know from other cases that it actually tends to make things worse, because people stock up and then we don’t have anything.”
COVID-19 appears to be more fatal than the flu, with COVID-19’s fatality rate believed to be around 2%, while the flu’s fatality rate is less than 1%. Compared to past coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, however, most COVID-19 cases are mild.
“For most people, it’s going to mean no disease or a mild illness,” Merson said. Unfortunately, that mildness could also explain why COVID-19 is spreading more rapidly than highly fatal diseases do. HIV, for example, “was very fatal, but hard to transmit,” he added.
10. Is there a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19?
No. There are trials underway in China and elsewhere, but because the virus is new, there’s no approved treatment for COVID-19 and a vaccine is likely more than a year away.