Below are commonly asked questions about the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak with summaries and links sources for which the summary was based. While this content was curated by scientists, it should not be considered medical advice; for that, please always consult with your physician.
What is COVID-19?
Summary: COVID-19 (aka C19) is a virus, like the flu, but unlike the flu is part of a different family called coronaviruses (hence why it was initially coined ‘coronavirus’). The common cold is part of the coronavirus family, however, does not spread in the same way nor have the level of severity of this disease.
Is COVID-19 really such a big deal?
Summary: It is a big deal, but there’s no need to panic. Rather, stay informed and take the suggested precautions. Currently, scientists and epidemiologists believe this will be a major outbreak with a significant human impact.
- What does the coronavirus mean for the U.S. health care system? Some simple math offers alarming answers (STAT News)
- “I Don’t Think the Virus Can Be Stopped Anymore” (Der Spiegel)
Why is COVID-19 worse than the flu?
Summary: The flu is already a major killer with 50,000 deaths, on average, in the U.S. from it each year. COVID-19 is estimated to be many times more deadly at this point. Remember also that the flu already has vaccines and treatments and is well understood. COVID-19 has no vaccines or treatment and is not well understood. It seems to also spread faster than the flu. It’s estimated that in the US, the death toll could reach between several hundred thousand to over 1 million people, at worst.
- Worst-Case Estimates for U.S. Coronavirus Deaths (NY Times)
- Top US health official says the coronavirus is 10 times ‘more lethal’ than the seasonal flu (CNBC)
How is COVID-19 Different than the H1N1 Swine Flu?
Summary: The H1N1 (aka Swine Flu), was a variant of the flu virus, not a coronavirus like COVID-19 and had a similar fatality rate (0.02%) to the flu. Flu viruses are well understood and we already have vaccines for them, so during the H1N1 outbreak, the action taken was to accelerate a version of the flu vaccine for H1N1, causing a decline in new cases. COVID-19 is a coronavirus for which no vaccines have ever been developed and is 10X more lethal than the flu.
- Trump’s H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic Spin (Factcheck.org)
- A visual history of pandemics (World Economic Forum)
Who is most at risk for COVID-19?
Summary: The elderly and people with certain conditions (like high blood pressure). Children and young adults seem to be fending it off better than others, however, they may still have severe symptoms and can infect others, even when asymptomatic.
What are my chances of getting the COVID-19?
Summary: Marc Lipsitch (Harvard infectious disease epidemiologist) estimates 20 to 60% (revised after the article below was written) over the next year.
Symptoms & Reactions
What are the symptoms of COVID-19 vs the flu?
Summary: Testing is the only real way to know if you have COVID-19 or the flu. The flu and coronavirus share some common symptoms, such as having a fever. However, researchers have found that a combination of four key symptoms could be indicators: loss of taste or smell, persistent cough, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Using this app can help diagnose these symptoms. Note some people are asymptomatic, so if you feel you’re at risk from travel or other sources, ask a health care provider about getting tested.
- App Shows Promise in Tracking New Coronavirus Cases, Study Finds (NY Times)
- Coronavirus symptoms: 10 key indicators and what to do (CNN)
- Temperature Check: Tracking Fever, a Key Symptom of Coronavirus (NY Times)
What is the general progression of COVID-19?
Summary: The progression of COVID-19 is much slower / longer than the flu, on average 30 to 40 days (versus 2 weeks for the flu) and also has a much longer contagious period than the flu. Below are the major phases (note this is generalized but roughly what is being observed as of March 14):
- Week 1: Incubation period – Right after infection, the incubation period can last up to 14 days without symptoms (average of 6) and is often asymptomatic. It’s believed a person is infectious during this period.
- Week 2: Fever & Dry Cough – Mild symptoms may develop similar to the flu (e.g. fever and chills) along with a dry cough.
- Week 3: Difficulty Breathing – Dyspnoea (difficulty or labored breathing) may develop.
- Week 4: ICU Admission – If it progresses to week four, the patient may be admitted to the ICU and put on oxygen and/or assisted breathing mechanisms such as ventilators. After which, hopefully, they recover soon!
- Clinical course and risk factors for mortality of adult inpatients with COVID-19 in Wuhan, China: a retrospective cohort study (The Lancet)
- What Does the Coronavirus Do to the Body? – NY Times
- Coronavirus Symptoms: Defining Mild, Moderate And Severe – NPR
Treatments & Vaccines
When will there be a vaccine for COVID-19?
Summary: Highly unlikely this year and more likely in 2021. Remember that this virus is similar to the common cold and SARS. No vaccine has ever been developed for either of those and, in fact, early SARS vaccine in animal trials were plagued by a phenomenon known as “vaccine-induced enhancement,” in which recipients exhibit worse symptoms after being injected. But fingers crossed we’ll figure it out this time around as more scientists are working on it globally.
- How close are we to a vaccine? (BBC News)
- Scientists were close to a coronavirus vaccine years ago. Then the money dried up. (NBC News)
Are there any COVID-19 treatments or cures?
Summary: There are no approved treatments at this point (the FDA withdrew support for the anti-malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine). Scientists are working quickly to develop treatments that help mitigate symptoms for those who develop the disease. Everything from Malaria drugs to Ebola treatments are being tested with COVID-19. Keep in mind, however, it will still take time to test these treatments and produce them. In addition, many will likely be expensive and available to only the most at-risk patients.
- The Best Hopes for a Coronavirus Drug (The Atlantic)
- What is Actually Known about Hydroxychloroquine – Trump’s Favorite Drug (The Atlantic)
How to Protect Yourself
How does COVID-19 spread?
Summary: The coronavirus is thought to spread mainly from person to person in the air, even when speaking. This can happen between people who are in close contact with one another. Droplets that are produced when an infected person speaks, coughs or sneezes may land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into their lungs. Coronavirus can also spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects. For example, a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. Finally, people who have the virus but don’t yet show symptoms (called asymptomatic) can also spread the disease, which is why it’s important for everyone to wear masks in public near other people.
- Harvard Coronavirus Resource Center
- Infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of coronavirus more than we realized (CNN)
How long does COVID-19 last on surfaces and how do I clean them?
Summary: In general, the virus lasts the least amount of time on rough, porous paper-based products such as paper, tissue paper and cardboard – anywhere from hours to a day, for cardboard. The virus lasts longer on smoother surfaces such as banknotes, plastic and stainless steel (several days). The virus also is sensitive to heat, so the warmer the environment, the faster the virus will be destroyed. Cleaning instructions in the article below.
- The New Coronavirus Can Live On Surfaces For 2-3 Days — Here’s How To Clean Them (NPR)
- New Study: Coronavirus stays on masks for a week, 3 hours on tissues and 7 days on banknotes (IBT Times)
What can you do to prevent getting COVID-19?
Summary: There’s no sure-fire prevention or vaccine at this point, instead mitigate the risks by via ‘social distancing’ and avoiding close contact with others, large gatherings, dense public transit, impacted areas if possible and most importantly wash your hands with soap. If you can’t wash your hands (e.g. while traveling) then using hand sanitizer with an alcohol content greater than > 60% can help. The best are gel-based alcohol hand sanitizers like Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer Refreshing Gel (70% alcohol). Finally, try not to touch your face, especially after touching other surfaces and wear a mask if you are out in public near others.
- The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them (Erin S. Bromage, Ph.D.)
- How to Protect Yourself (CDC)
- How soap absolutely annihilates the coronavirus (Vox)
Should I wear a face mask?
Yes. Wearing a DIY mask (not professional – save those for healthcare workers) when in public, near others (like shopping), is a good way to help slow the transmission of the disease, in addition other measures such as staying home and keeping your distance. Since a large part of the disease transmission is via asymptomatic carriers, wearing a mask helps protect others, “I protect you, you protect me.” Secondarily, a DIY mask can also help protect you from aerosolized virus particles when people speak (and of course, cough or sneeze). Those who are sick, should also wear a mask to protect others.
- CDC recommends wearing face masks during the coronavirus pandemic (LA Times)
- Perspective | Simple DIY masks could help flatten the curve. We should all wear them in public. (Washington Post)
- Why Masks Are Important & How to Make Them
- Is the Coronavirus Airborne? Should We All Wear Masks? (The Atlantic)
Is it safe to go shopping?
Since shopping locations, like grocery stores, act as central hubs where people gather from various places and because the virus can spread asymptomatically, it’s best to limit shopping trips and time in stores. If you go shopping, wear a mask (and ideally glasses) when in the store since the virus can linger in the air. Take your hand sanitizer with you and ensure shopping carts and baskets have been disinfected. After you leave the store, clean your hands again. When you come home, consider cleaning the products (as shown in the video below).
Containment & Testing
There don’t seem to be any / many COVID-19 cases in my area. Am I safe?
Summary: Likely not since testing capacity is still lagging so the virus is spreading in a manner that’s difficult to detect via asymptomatic people. Those in more densely populated areas with active travel routes will be more affected than those in less densely populated areas with fewer travel connections at first, but the virus will eventually make it to more rural areas at some point.
- Does My County Have an Epidemic? Estimates Show Hidden Transmission (NY Times)
- Opinion: Early Coronavirus Testing Failures Will Cost Lives (NPR)
- Act Like You Already Have Coronavirus (HuffPost)
What does “Flattening the Curve” mean and why is it important?
Summary: Flattening the Curve refers to slowing down the overall infection rate so as not to overwhelm our limited medical resources all at once, which would be catastrophic. For example, other people that need hospital services would be impacted, exacerbating the situation even more.
- Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve” (Washington Post)
- Flattening the Coronavirus Curve (NY Times)
What’s the difference between a Quarantine, a Lock-Down and Social Distancing?
Summary: A quarantine is the isolation of a person or group of people after becoming infected to avoid the spread of the disease. A “lock-down” restricts the travel of a population, usually within a region, to avoid people coming in contact with one another. Social Distancing is a milder form of a lock-down where people generally avoid contact with others as much as possible and keep a separation distance (e.g. 6 feet), whenever possible. Social Distancing is usually the first step in fighting an outbreak and must happen as quickly as possible.
- Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve” (Washington Post)
- Coronavirus: What is social distancing? When should I quarantine versus isolate? (USA Today)
- This chart of the 1918 Spanish flu shows why social distancing works (Quartz)
How long will this COVID-19 outbreak last?
Summary: No one knows exactly how long this will last, but it’s likely going to be for quite some time (throughout 2020) since there is currently no vaccine and the virus will run its course until one is developed. While social distancing measures will help “flatten the curve” to avoid flooding our hospitals, those social containment measures will likely need to remain in place for many months until low-cost and widely available tests and treatments are available (hopefully later in 2020). Every community will have different mitigation strategies and those will ebb and flow depending on how quickly those communities take action (vs waiting for the virus to spread).
So what should I/we do now?
Summary: Most experts believe enacting some form of ‘social distancing’ quickly in areas likely to be prone to infection (dense populations with travel) is critical. That means avoiding crowds, limiting your contact with others, keeping 6-foot separation where possible, etc. Plus, of course, practice good hygiene as mentioned above. Cover sneezes / coughs, wash your hands with soap and water, carry hand sanitizer, and avoid touching your face. Also, wear DIY masks (as long as it doesn’t take away from hospital supplies) in public near other people. The goal is to “flatten the curve” as much as possible.
And, importantly, take care of yourself, your family and your neighbors. Be compassionate and help wherever you are able! See the resources and taking action sections below for more.