Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): What is it and How Can I Protect Myself?

If you have watched television, read the newspaper or magazines, listened to the radio, or used the internet recently, it is a virtual certainty that you have been bombarded with coverage of the coronavirus.  The constant media barrage may make it seem as though the coronavirus is a brand-new phenomenon but in reality, the virus is actually part of a family of illnesses that have been around for many years.  From the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), coronaviruses have been affecting people around the world for a long time.

The new virus outbreak, called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), first appeared in the Eastern China city of Wuhan in December 2019.  As of this writing, public health groups, like the World Health Organization (WHO) and United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are reporting cases of COVID-19 in 185 countries, including the United States, and have declared the outbreak a pandemic.  The number of cases worldwide has topped 400,000 of which, approximately 40,000 are in the US.  While the death toll is ever changing, there have been roughly 16,000 fatalities globally with over 500 in the US.  Experts estimate that the global mortality rate is likely around 3% but exact numbers are not yet known.

Method of Transmission

COVID-19 appears to spread primarily from close, person to person contact with those infected.  Respiratory droplets, such as from a sneeze or cough, are the primary method of transmission but it is not entirely clear how contagious the virus actually is.  Because the virus can live on surfaces that an infected person comes in contact with, it is possible to contract the virus despite practicing social avoidance techniques.

COVID-19 Treatment Options

There is currently no FDA approved antiviral medication that can be used to treat COVID-19, however, some trials have been successful with current off label medication used in ICU’s in the US and other countries. Until further information is available, if patients  fall ill are still advised to get adequate rest, drink ample fluids, use cough syrup or medication, and take pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to mitigate symptoms.

Symptoms of COVID-19

In general, symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of other respiratory illnesses such as influenza (the flu) and can range from quite mild to severe with some patients reporting no symptoms at all.  For those that do display symptoms, a dry cough, shortness of breath, runny nose, fever, aches, and tiredness, are amongst the most common COVID-19 symptoms and can appear two to 14 days after being exposed.  The elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and lung or heart disease, appear to be at a greater risk for severe illness.

If you or a loved one believe you have been exposed to COVID-19 or are showing symptoms of the virus, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible for an appointment.  So that the doctor and their staff can be prepared for your visit, inform your doctor of any recent travel, known or suspected exposure to a person infected with the virus, any symptoms you are showing, and any pre-existing medical conditions.  Depending on the severity of your illness, your doctor will determine if you require hospitalization or are able to treat the virus at home.  If home treatment is an option, your doctor will likely recommend you quarantine yourself from other members of the household so as to not spread the illness.  Unless you are sick and your doctor tells you to, wearing a face mask is not recommended and only takes away the supply from those most in need

How to Protect Against COVID-19 Infection

With the level of uncertainty regarding transmission, the rapid spread of disease around the world, the lack of proven medication for treatment, and near panic-level attention in the media, many are wondering what they can do to protect themselves and their family from COVID-19.  Because person to person contact appears to be the primary method of transmission, avoiding people is likely the most effective way of preventing contraction.  People should avoid events or mass gatherings and keep a distance (6 feet or more) between themselves and anyone who is sick, has symptoms, or is known to have been exposed to the virus.  Government officials in many US states are heeding this advice and in order to encourage social distancing, have closed schools, non-essential businesses, and placed bans on gatherings of 10 or more people.  The business community is also helping by limiting hours of operation, encouraging employees to work from home (if possible), or closing all-together until the virus subsides.

Individuals can, and should, also do their part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.  Hands should be washed frequently with soap and hot water for a minimum of 20 seconds.  If unable to wash their hands, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain a minimum of 60% alcohol can help people kill any pathogens.  People should avoid touching their mouth, nose, and eyes if they have not cleaned their hands first.  Regardless of if they are showing symptoms or not, everyone should cover their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, preferably with a tissue that can be thrown away.  Avoiding the sharing of glasses, dishes, bedding, or other household items is also encouraged.  Try to keep your immune system as robust as possible by avoiding things that stress it such as eating raw or undercooked meat and not getting adequate sleep.  Stress can also impact the immune system so if the 24/7 media coverage of COVID-19 is causing anxiety, make an effort to minimize or eliminate the amount of time spent watching television, listening to radio coverage, or reading about the outbreak.

While many states, schools, and businesses have already made the decision to close operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, people should stay home to the fullest extent possible.  Unless they have no other option, avoiding public transportation is advisable.  Non-essential travel, particularly to areas that have known cases of COVID-19, should be avoided.  If travel is necessary, especially internationally, people are asked to check the WHO and CDC websites before their trip for health advisory updates and advice.