Guest Post Written By: Dr. Kate Shoemaker, M.D of Internal Medicine
As a doctor, I get lots of questions about the on-going coronavirus outbreak.
Of course, if you have questions or suspect that you might have coronavirus (COVID-19), please consult your own doctor or sites like the CDC website about it. If possible, I’d suggest telemedicine appointments if your doctor offers them for your own safety. After all, as the virus spreads, it’s more likely to be in doctor’s offices and hospitals, so be mindful about seeking care.
With that in mind, here are some of the most common questions I get asked about about COVID-19:
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is the name of the illness you get when you have been infected by a new, and particularly virulent, strain of coronavirus.
Coronaviruses are actually quite common and usually cause a “cold-like” illness in people. This novel strain that is causing COVID-19 is more severe than strains that have previously commonly infected people.
Why is it causing severe illness?
Well, we don’t exactly know yet. Like most respiratory infections (like flu and other causes of pneumonia,) this virus causes the most severe illness in people that have pre-existing lung and heart conditions. People who smoke, have COPD or heart failure, or a suppressed immune system (like cancer patients, the elderly, and those with autoimmune conditions on medicines that weaken the immune system) are going to be at risk for severe illness requiring hospitalization.
Some potentially good news is that babies (>6 mo) and kids seem to NOT be getting severe illness. They are like most people who will simply have symptoms of runny nose, cough, and fever.
If most people are just going to get cold symptoms, why is it such a big deal?
Because we need to protect the people who are high-risk for severe infection. This virus is particularly virulent (meaning is passed from person to person more easily than most other viruses), and has a long latency period (meaning it can survive in someone without symptoms and on surfaces for a prolonged period of time).
These characteristics mean that it will spread through a community very quickly if the proper precautions are not taken.
The best data we have implies the virus can pass between people within 6 feet of each other for longer than 15 minutes. It can also survive in someone for about 2 weeks, making them contagious most of that time. It also seems to be able to survive on surfaces for several hours or even a couple of days.
What are my chances of being infected?
Most experts are predicting that anywhere from 40-70% of the country will be infected within the next year. How quickly everyone gets infected matters, because healthcare providers do not have enough ICU beds and equipment to take care of everyone at once. That is why slowing down the rate of spread is so important— if we can spread out over time the really sick patients coming to hospitals, then healthcare facilities will be able to care for everyone as patients slowly trickle into hospitals.
If everyone that is going to get severely ill gets sick at once, we are not going to have enough room to care for them. This is why it is so important for EVERYONE to practice “social distancing.”
It will help slow transmission across society to expose high-risk people more slowly/steadily over time. The more time we have, the better the chance that a treatment or vaccine can also be developed.
What is social distancing?
Well, it means giving the virus less chance of being transmitted from person to person. It seems the virus is transmitted via aerosolized droplets reaching mucosal surfaces of people (like eyes, mouth, nose).
This means if someone coughs on a table, then you touch the table with your hand and then your face with that hand, you could get infected.
It also seems to be transmitted fecal-to-oral, so washing hands after using the bathroom is [as always] a must!
So, the recommendations of avoiding crowds, avoiding plane travel, hand hygiene, etc are all to slow and decrease the rate of transmission from person to person.
The good news is the virus seems to be killed by common cleaners, like bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and alcohol. So wipe surfaces, wash hands, and keep your distance from people!
What should I do if I think I’m infected?
This is hardest question to answer right now due to the rapidly evolving process and procedures that are being put in place across the country. If you develop symptoms you think could be indicative of this virus (fever, cough, body aches,) that you can manage at home, it is best to avoid exposing other people.
If drive-through and other low-risk testing sites become more prevalent, that would be the best way to get checked.
Most tests will have results back in 24-48 hours. But whether you know you have the virus or not, you should be trying to avoid transmission with other people.
If you develop shortness of breath, wheezing, or any symptoms that are making it harder to breath, you should, of course, go to an ER unless specific centers are devoted to treating this illness (then you should go there.)
We will get through this! But to help everyone make it through this and reduce the deaths from the virus, take your social distancing and hygiene precautions seriously!
*Special Thanks to Dr. Kate Shoemaker for this informative post on How to Keep Yourself Safe From the COVID-19 Panic. Dr. Kate is a doctor of internal medicine. She is also my awesome sister-in-law!
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