The novel coronavirus has been a source of fear for people worldwide since it was identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning US citizens to brace themselves for the likelihood that the virus will begin to spread even more.
In a news conference Tuesday, Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned that when it comes to a coronavirus outbreak, “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country anymore, but a question of when this will happen,” per the New York Times.
Dr. Messonnier went on to say that, while public health officials don’t know whether the spread of the disease would be mild or severe, she said Americans should get ready for a possible significant disruption. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad,” she said.
Clearly, that’s alarming news, especially with the new developments from the CDC confirming that 53 people in the US—14 cases diagnosed here, 39 cases among repatriated citizens from high-risk areas—have the new coronavirus (COVID-19). But before you panic too much, there are ways to prepare for and protect yourself from the coronavirus outbreak—here’s how:
1. Know the symptoms of coronavirus
Unfortunately, symptoms of COVID-19 are remarkably similar to a cold or the flu. According to the CDC, symptoms of the new coronavirus can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Further investigation of the disease has also found that those with the virus had diarrhea and vomiting one or two days prior to the development of their fevers and labored breathing.
It’s also important to know, per the CDC, that COVID-19 may have a longer incubation period, similar to that of another deadly coronavirus, MERS-CoV. The CDC says that the symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as two days, or as long as 14 days, after exposure to the virus.
2. Be aware of how coronavirus spreads.
According to the most recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by the CDC, COVID-19 spreads from person-to-person mainly via respiratory transmission—essentially by coming into contact with respiratory droplets from the coughs and sneezes of infected people. Keep in mind that close contact essentially means people who are within six feet of each other—that’s how far infected droplets can spread.
The CDC also says that COVID-19 can be contracted after a person touches a surface or object with the virus on it, then touches their own mouth, nose, or eyes—though that’s likely not the main way the virus passes between people. New research has also emerged suggesting that COVID-19 can also spread through fecal transmission (a fecal-oral route, similar to how norovirus is spread), as well as by contact with an infected person’s blood.
3. Be realistic about your own risk of contracting coronavirus.
It’s important to maintain some perspective when it comes to the coronavirus outbreak: Yes, COVID-19 has been declared a “public health emergency of international concern” and the CDC has said that the public health threat “is high, both globally and to the United States.” However—and this is key—while the virus has affected “close contacts” of travelers from Wuhan, “at this time, this virus is NOT currently spread in the community in the United States.” Meaning: the threat to a normal, everyday person in the US is low. Those who are more at risk include doctors and nurses who are treating patients infected with the virus.
“It’s highly likely that we’ll see significantly more coronavirus infections in the US. That said, the vast majority of infections and deaths have been limited to mainland China, in settings where access to healthcare is much more limited than what we have here,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Sandra Kesh, Deputy Medical Director at Westmed Medical Group in Purchase, NY, tells Health. Influenza, aka the flu, remains the bigger threat to the average person, she says. “Flu has already infected and killed tens of thousands more people in the world than coronavirus,” she says.
4. Keep practicing flu prevention strategies—and that doesn’t necessarily include buying a face mask.
While it may be tempting to sport a surgical mask everywhere you go, know that you probably don’t have to put one on. “My personal opinion is masks for healthy individuals are more annoying than useful. If you are really using a mask for protection or prevention, you would have to wear it practically 24/7 to avoid any possible contact,” Susan Besser, MD, a family medicine doctor with Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore, Maryland previously told Health. A mask may also make you feel as if you’re more protected than you are, says Dr. Kesh, which can lead to more relaxed flu precautions.
More effective, says the CDC, is all the smart flu prevention strategies—that includes staying home when you’re not feeling well and avoiding others who are sick, washing your hands often (or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol) as well as before eating and going to the bathroom, cleaning commonly touched surfaces and objects, and keeping your hands away from your face as much as possible.
5. Don’t jump to conclusions—whether it’s about your own health, or the health and safety of other people and populations.
In a new coronavirus Situation Report, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns against public stigmatization among specific populations closely linked to the coronavirus outbreak. This stigma—which can manifest in driving people to hide their illnesses, preventing people from getting health care immediately, and discouraging people from following healthy behaviors—can lead to more severe health problems and ongoing transmission, per the WHO.
And even if you do develop a fever or cough, you don’t have to immediately assume coronavirus for yourself. First, says Dr. Kesh: consider if you could have been exposed to the virus—that means whether you’ve been in contact with someone who was diagnosed with coronavirus, or had traveled to any affected countries. If not, the likeliness for a coronavirus diagnosis is low. If, however, you do believe you could have been exposed to COVID-19, it’s important to call your doctor immediately.
The good news: Most people recover with rest and fluids (there’s no approved treatment or vaccine or this strain of coronavirus yet). But definitely isolate yourself from others: “The worst thing most people can do is to go into work or school if they’re sick. That spreads the infection and makes it harder for them to recover,” says Dr. Kesh.