2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

Hey Alice!

I've been hearing a lot on the news about the new virus [novel coronavirus, COVID-19] and I'm seeing students on campus wearing masks. The news seems to have conflicting information and I'm not sure what to do. Should I be worried? Do I need to wear a mask too? Thank you.

Dear Reader, 

For those looking for a little background, the virus to which you’re referring is known as SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes is called the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). It’s primarily transmitted from person-to-person contact, and the outbreak has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. At this time, there is widespread community transmission in the United States, with millions of confirmed cases. Due to this, many states have implemented plans to respond to COVID-19, which include reopening businesses and schools, rolling out vaccinations, and providing support for COVID-19 testing, among others. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people wear masks, avoid gatherings with lots of people, and practice physical distancing to reduce the spread of disease. To answer your question about masks, at this time, the CDC is recommending that people wear face coverings when they’re experiencing symptoms or when they’re going out in public areas in which it may be hard to physically distance (such as the grocery store).  

To cover some of the basics, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness, including the common cold. The virus may cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract infections and even severe forms of pneumonia in some cases. The first reported case of this particular strain of virus was from a seafood and live-animal market in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, indicating an animal-to-person transmission (a typical characteristic of coronaviruses). Over time, there were confirmed cases among patients not exposed to the animal markets, which alerted medical professionals that the virus could be spread from person-to-person. This has now been indicated to be the main form of disease spread. 

Similar to other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 is most commonly spread through respiratory droplets and close contact with those who are infected. It’s also possible that spread can occur when people are presymptomatic. This means that they may spread the virus to others before they show symptoms. Additionally, some people may be asymptomatic, which means that they’re carrying the virus and are able to spread it to others, but never develop symptoms themselves. It’s also possible that transmission could occur when a person touches their nose, mouth, or eyes as well as through coming into contact with aerosolized particles (tiny droplets that remain in the air). However, these methods aren’t believed to be the most common way for COVID-19 to spread. It spreads most through close contact with others, which is why maintaining physical distance is so key.  

Health authorities across the globe, including the CDC and World Health Organization, are working around the clock to keep tabs on the progression of COVID-19. It’s worth noting that the some of the surges of this virus have coincided with cold and flu season. Because this is rapidly changing, the risk associated with contracting the disease may evolve over time. 

That being said, there are some symptoms to look out for: 

  • Shortness of breath 
  • Fever 
  • Cough 
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

List adapted from the CDC.

Currently, the incubation period, which is the amount of time between exposure to a disease and the development of symptoms, is believed to be anywhere between 2 to 14 days. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s critical to be in touch with your health care provider. While most people will experience mild cases and can recover at home, some will experience more serious cases that require hospitalization. Some people, such as those with underlying medical conditions and those who are older, may be at an increased risk for experiencing a more severe case of the disease. It’s key to seek immediate care if symptoms such as trouble breathing, bluish lips, persistent chest pain, and new confusion are present, as the CDC has deemed them emergency warning signs.

It’s recommended that those who are experiencing symptoms seek out a COVID-19 test. Additionally, those who have come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case are encouraged to get tested. Some others may choose or be required to get tested include (but are not limited to):

  • Those who are required to by their jobs or schools
  • People who have been in large group settings
  • People who participated in activities that may put them at risk
  • Travelers

Many states, counties, and cities have set up testing programs. Tests may also be available with a health care provider near you.

In terms of treatment, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19. Most treatment focuses on relieving symptoms, rather than treating the condition itself. In addition to treatment, vaccines are a prevention method that can help reduce the likelihood of a person getting the disease. To date, three vaccines have been approved for emergency use authorization by the FDA in the United States, allowing them to be administered more quickly. All of the approved vaccines were still required to meet the same standards for safety and effectiveness as other vaccines. Thus far, they have demonstrated high levels of effectiveness protected against COVID-19. Some of the side effects include pain at the injection site, getting a headache, and a fever, though many people don’t experience any side effects.

In order to limit with the spread of coronavirus, there are some preventative measures that may help. Right now, the most prominent recommendation is to participate in physical distancing (also commonly called social distancing). This means staying at home as much as possible, keeping six feet (two meters) between yourself and others when you need to go out, and avoiding places with large groups of people. Many state and local governments have put orders in place to close locations and events with large gatherings, and other essential businesses have limited the number of people who may occupy their space. Further, this also means not socializing with others, even while in small groups, in order to reduce the risk of exposure. In addition to physical distancing, there are some additional measures that can be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19:  

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. 
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available. 
  • Avoid touching your face. 
  • Clean or disinfect commonly used objects regularly. 
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, or if one isn’t available, cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow. 

List adapted from the CDC

Further, it’s also wise to keep abreast of all travel restrictions and requirements as implemented by federal and local governments. If you have any international travel planned, you may want to adjust any plans that aren’t essential. Changes in travel restrictions while you’re abroad may make returning home more challenging if you’re in an affected region. Additionally, many places require negative COVID-19 tests prior to entering their city, state, or country along with quarantining for given periods of time. It’s wise to review all testing and quarantine requirements for any travel locations (domestic or international) prior to departure.

You mentioned that you’ve seen students wearing masks around campus. Many folks choose to use these masks as a preventive measure. The guidance on masks has evolved as researchers learn more about COVID-19. At this time, the CDC recommends that people wear face coverings outside of the house when in public places. Using a face covering isn’t a substitute for physical distancing, and they encourage everyone to maintain physical distance as much as possible. There are still no formal recommendations for the general public to wear N95 masks outside of health care settings. Some of the recommended face masks include cloth masks made from tightly woven material, medical procedure or surgical masks, or KN95 masks.

In addition to the material, the fit is essential for ensuring that respiratory droplets don’t leave the mask. It’s key that the face covering be snug on the face, allow for easy breathing, secured with ties, covers the nose and chin, can be easily cleaned, and has multiple layers of material. To improve the fit, you may find masks that have nose wires, knot the ear loops of the mask for a tighter fit against the face, or use a mask fitter. Additionally, using two masks, such as a surgical mask beneath a fabric mask, can help improve the fit and add extra filtration. However, face coverings aren’t recommended for those under the age of two, people who have trouble breathing, or those who wouldn’t be able to remove the face covering on their own. Further, face coverings are still recommended for those who are experiencing symptoms and for those caring for them.   

If you want to keep on top of what’s happening with the pandemic, you may consider checking the CDC website for updates. It's great that you're seeking out answers, particularly when you're seeing conflicting information. Hope this helps! 

Last updated Mar 18, 2021
Originally published Jan 31, 2020

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