The symptoms of infection for the new coronavirus are often similar to those of other respiratory virus infections, such as influenza. Symptoms can include fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Most people will only have mild symptoms, but some can become very sick. When person-to-person spread has occurred with other novel coronaviruses that caused diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), it is thought to have happened mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. Spread of MERS and SARS has generally occurred between people in close contact.
“The means of transmission is similar: through respiratory droplets produced when a person coughs or sneezes, or by direct physical contact with an infected person, such as shaking hands,” says Dr. David Goldberg, internist and infectious disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Westchester and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
If you think you may have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 and have symptoms, before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room, call ahead and tell them about your symptoms and any recent travel. You can also utilize a virtual care platform, such as NewYork-Presbyterian’s NYP OnDemand, to meet with a healthcare professional by video conference. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor will determine whether or not you need to come in to be evaluated. Avoid contact with others and wear a face mask if you need to leave your home when you are sick.
Keep things clean
Preventative measures are your first line of defense. The best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to practice good hygiene and to make these CDC recommendations part of your routine:
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Stay home when you are sick.
Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow, rather than into your hands.
Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
On April 3, the CDC changed its guidelines on face masks, recommending that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings. This is especially encouraged in situations where social distancing is difficult to maintain (such as in a grocery store or pharmacy) and in areas of significant community-based transmission. According to the CDC, studies have shown that individuals with the novel coronavirus could be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, prompting them to make this new recommendation. While this measure is intended to help mitigate the spread, it’s important to note that it does not replace social distancing recommendations. In addition, surgical masks and N-95 respirators should remain reserved for healthcare workers and medical first responders.
Avoid close contact
Social distancing remains a key way to mitigate spread. The CDC recommends maintaining a distance of approximately 6 feet from others in public places since respiratory droplets produced by coughing or sneezing do not travel more than 6 feet. While at home, remind everyone to practice everyday preventive actions – such as washing hands and wiping down surfaces – to help reduce the risk of getting sick. If you are symptomatic and have tested positive for COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization, you should stay in a specific “sick room” and away from other people in your home as much as possible and use a separate bathroom, if available. If your living space makes it difficult to keep a 6-foot distance, stay as far apart as you can and continue to practice good hygiene and wear a mask.
Restrict your travel
Traveling can help increase the spread of COVID-19 and put you at risk for contracting the disease. The CDC recommends avoiding all non-essential international travel due to the global spread of coronavirus. It also advises people to weigh the risks when it comes to domestic travel: “COVID-19 cases and deaths have been reported in all 50 states, and the situation is constantly changing,” states the CDC. “Because travel increases your chances of getting infected and spreading COVID-19, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.”
“For people at risk for the complications of COVID-19, such as those with underlying medical conditions or those who are older, it’s prudent to avoid travel,” says Dr. Goldberg.
If you must travel, take safety measures, consider your mode of transportation, and stay up to date on the restrictions that are in place at your destination.