Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19):  An Overview

A family of viruses ranging from the common cold to Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), coronaviruses are not a new group of illnesses.  While these viruses have been around for many years, the emergence of a new disease in 2019 is what most people think of when they hear the term coronavirus.  This new virus outbreak, which first originated in China, is known as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

COVID-19 may have originated in China, but it is now being reported in a rapidly growing number of countries around the world, including the United States.  Public health groups, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The World Health Organization (WHO), have been closely monitoring the outbreak while providing tips on prevention and treatment.  In March 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak as a global pandemic.

Because COVID-19 has only appeared within the past few months, there is still much to learn about how the virus is transmitted and how contagious it is.  Early evidence suggests that the virus spreads from close, person to person contact.  Respiratory droplets, from a sneeze or cough, of an infected person, also appear to contribute to the spread of the virus.  COVID-19 can live on surfaces that have been exposed to the virus so people should avoid touching their nose, mouth, or eyes.

COVID-19 Symptoms

Appearing within two to 14 days after exposure, symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of influenza and can include cough, fever, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing.  In some cases, patients have reported tiredness, aches, a runny nose, and sore throat.  The severity of these symptoms varies from mild to severe with some patients showing no symptoms at all.  Older patients or people with pre-existing medical conditions, such as lung or heart disease and diabetes, appear to be at a higher risk for severe illness.  Complications from the virus can include pneumonia, organ failure, and death

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Patients showing signs or symptoms of COVID-19, should contact their Healthcare Provider as soon as possible for an appointment.  Furthermore, patients that have been exposed to someone with the virus, live in an area where COVID-19 has spread, or have traveled to an area where there is an outbreak, should also contact their doctor.  If symptoms of the virus develop, patients should contact their healthcare provider quickly for directions on where to be tested. After clinical evaluation, the healthcare provider  will determine whether or not to conducts tests for the virus.  In order to test for COVID-19, the doctor will take saliva (sputum) samples, throat swabs, and nasal swabs.  These samples will be sent to a laboratory for testing to determine if the illness is COVID-19.

Treatment and Prevention Options

While there is not a vaccine yet available to prevent infection, there are several ways people can reduce the risk of infection that are recommended by the CDC and WHO.  Since the virus appears to be transmitted through person-to-person contact, avoiding mass gatherings and large events is highly recommended.  Whenever possible, people should stay home from work, school, and avoid public areas or transportation.  If anyone shows symptoms or is sick, people should avoid getting close and keep a distance (about 6 feet) between themselves and the ill person.  Frequently washing hands with soap and hot water for a minimum of 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer containing a minimum of 60% alcohol, are also advised.  Surfaces that are frequently touched, should be cleaned and disinfected daily and sharing of household items, such as glasses, dishes, and bedding, should be avoided.  The WHO has also recommended that people avoid eating undercooked or raw meat, drinking alcohol, or using recreational drugs as these can all weaken a person’s immune system and make them more susceptible to infection.  Unless sick and recommended by a health care professional, the CDC does not suggest for healthy people to wear face masks to guard against the virus.

As mentioned previously, there is no vaccine available, however, there are cases responding to an off label treatment regimen that has been successful in several ICU’s around the world. While this is still being studied, current treatment options are focused on symptom relief.  Getting adequate rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and using pain relievers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) or cough syrup, are the primary methods currently available to relieve symptoms associated with the virus.  If able to be treated at home, the CDC is recommending that the patient isolate or quarantine themselves from other family members or pets for a period of time to avoid spreading the virus.  In the event a patient is very ill, hospitalization may be required in order to treat the illness.

It is virtually impossible to turn on the television, radio, or read the newspaper without being overwhelmed with coverage on the coronavirus pandemic.  With the constant barrage of media coverage, it is natural for people to feel stress and isolation regarding the COVID-19 outbreak.  Since stress is known to weaken the immune system, there are ways people can reduce fear and anxiety.  Limiting or avoiding reading or watching news coverage about COVID-19 can be beneficial.  Doing healthy activities like exercising regularly, stretching, getting enough sleep, or meditating, will help ensure people do what they can to take care of themselves.  And checking reputable websites, like the WHO and CDC, for the latest facts and suggestions, is a great way for everyone to stay connected to the latest developments.