The whole world is understandably worried about Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). While containing COVID-19 is the biggest public health challenge we will face in the weeks and months ahead, it’s not the only obstacle we must overcome. Alongside this pandemic is a mounting infodemic that is spreading even faster than the disease. Confusion about symptoms, transmission and “cures” have clouded attempts to share important facts with a very concerned public.
As you’ve no doubt heard, COVID-19 is a serious ― and sometimes deadly ― health care challenge. It’s important to keep in mind that most cases are mild to moderate and follow a flu-like progression. Before you hit the panic button, here are the answers to your most critical questions. As our health care providers and nation’s leaders work to fight the pandemic, you can help cure the infodemic today:
1. What is COVID-19? While this strain is new, we’ve seen coronaviruses before. In fact, your last cold was likely caused by one of two coronavirus strains. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are also caused by different coronavirus strains. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they pass from animals to people. There are several known coronaviruses circulating that have yet to infect humans. The reality is, most people will be sick with a coronavirus in their lifetime.
2. How does it spread? COVID-19 is transmitted the same way as a cold or the flu ― through respiratory droplets from a cough or sneeze. These droplets can settle on a surface and may live for as long as nine days. Touching an infected surface and then reaching for your nose or mouth can spread the virus, which explains why handwashing and sanitizing are critical to controlling the spread.
3. How severe is COVID-19? So far, 80% of cases have been mild, meaning patients recover on their own. Meanwhile, early indications from the World Health Organization (WHO) put the death rate at around 1%, possibly lower, because some cases ― especially the mild ones ― go unreported. Generally, age, underlying health conditions and access to treatment are the driving factors. In Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, there were a series of factors that made the COVID-19 outbreak worse. A large smoker population and poor air quality influenced the severity. Interestingly, to help control the spread, they shut down factories and restricted transportation, so air quality has dramatically improved since the outbreak. Even more notably, China’s overwhelmed health care system resulted in more deaths, compared to other infected areas.
4. What are the symptoms? COVID-19 most often causes a mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illness, similar to a common cold. Symptoms include a runny nose, cough, headache, sore throat, shortness of breath and fever. For the elderly and those with a weakened immune system, there’s a chance the virus can cause a more serious lower respiratory tract illness like pneumonia or bronchitis.
5. What is the incubation period? It may take anywhere from two to 14 days for a person to develop symptoms, though most people show symptoms after five days. People are thought to be most contagious when symptoms are most severe.
6. What should you do if you suspect you have COVID-19? Don’t panic. Call ahead to your health care provider and explain your symptoms, being careful to note any possible contact with someone infected with COVID19 or any travel that may have exposed you to the virus. Your provider will work with the state public health department and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to determine if you need to be tested. In the meantime, stay home (except to get medical care), avoid contact with others, wash your hands often and clean high-touch surface areas every day. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, wear a mask.
7. What are some smart, everyday strategies everyone should use to avoid getting sick? Strategies to prevent COVID-19 are the same ones you should already be using to prevent colds and flu. Wash hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, opt for elbow bumps over handshakes, keep your hands away from your nose and mouth, steer clear of sick people, avoid touching public surfaces, use disposable tissues to open doors and hold railings, use your knuckle to push elevator buttons and minimize contact with others through social distancing.
8. Should you wear a face mask to keep from getting sick? People are buying face masks out of fear, even though science tells us they are ineffective in preventing COVID-19. Yes, infected people should wear masks to prevent their droplets from infecting others, and their caregivers should wear them as well. Healthy people have no reason to stockpile masks, however, and health officials are urging people to stop wasting masks because they are creating a dangerous shortage for health care workers who treat infectious diseases every day. The price of surgical masks is six times higher now than at the start of the outbreak, and WHO is calling on manufacturers to increase production by 40% to compensate for panic-driven scarcities.
COVID-19 is still emerging and rapidly evolving in the U.S., and that’s scary. Knowing the facts and using realistic strategies to avoid contracting the virus are your best bets for staying healthy. Remember, most people who contract COVID-19 will not require any medical attention. In severe cases, health care providers are prepared to provide respiratory support. Despite social media hype, there’s no need to panic. Listen to the advice of the CDC. If you are told to stay home ― stay home ― and be even more diligent about your infectious disease prevention strategies to fight COVID-19. If you’re already germ conscious, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, now is the time to get serious about good hygiene to prevent illness. Our nation is working hard to combat COVID-19. You can help ― not by stockpiling ― but by following the advice of your nurse practitioner or other health care provider. Together, we can and will stamp out COVID-19.