COVID-19 has spread to 34 countries so far. Although it’s still rare outside of China, and there are only a handful of cases in global cities, it’s reasonable to expect the disease to spread more before it’s contained. That doesn’t mean we need to panic just yet (or ever), but it is smart to be prepared.
Seriously, don’t panic
Even though the disease has spread to many countries, China still has the vast majority of the cases: 77,780 out of 80,239 worldwide according to the latest numbers. We are not looking at a Contagion style pandemic, definitely not yet, and probably not ever.
A pandemic needs to be widespread, severe, and have a serious effect on society in general, the WHO director said at a recent news briefing. That doesn’t describe what we’re seeing so far.
"For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this #coronavirus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 24, 2020
The whole reason governments and health services are reacting with such urgency is that they’re trying to prevent that situation from happening. So far, it seems to be working: cases in China are already slowing down, and many people who were seriously ill have recovered.
Bookmark trustworthy information sources
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the coronavirus, and scams and myths are running wild. Bookmark a few sources that you can check as the situation develops:
The CDC’s COVID-19 page for US-specific information (including warnings for travellers)
Your local (city, county, and/or state) health departments
Those local pages will be especially important if the virus comes to where you are. They’ll provide information and guidelines specific to your area, most likely including updates on how many people are affected.
Know the facts about the virus
Symptoms of COVID-19 are flu-like, although Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organisation said in a Q&A today that sniffles and sneezing aren’t part of the typical picture for this disease. Instead, people more commonly have a dry cough, and may develop shortness of breath. Other symptoms include fever, muscle pain, and generally feeling crappy.
She emphasised that if you have shortness of breath or chest pain, it’s important to seek medical care, because that could indicate you have a more severe case of the disease. These are serious symptoms even if the cause turns out to be something other than the coronavirus, so don’t dismiss them.
So far, it appears that 80% of people who have the virus have a mild case of the illness, but the more severe cases can be serious and even fatal. People who are more likely to develop the severe cases include people who are over 60, or who have underlying conditions such as cardiovascular disease or chronic respiratory diseases.
At the time I’m writing this, there is no vaccine for the virus, and no cure for the disease, although there are experimental vaccines and treatments currently being tested. Testing to find out whether you have the virus takes a few days to get results back, although the CDC is working to make rapid tests available. We’re learning more about the virus every day, so check those WHO and CDC websites from time to time for updates.
Focus on effective means of prevention
The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads through droplets. That means that when an infected person coughs or breathes, the virus may be in the droplets of saliva or other fluids that they expel into the air. (Ew.)
But that’s actually sort of good news, because droplets are too heavy to hang in the air. They fall to the ground before they can travel more than a few feet. So even if somebody is sick, if you stay three to six feet away from them, you aren’t in much danger. It also means the disease is not airborne, so you don’t have anything to worry from ventilation systems or from being in the same room after a person who is sick. You do have to be careful about touching surfaces where those droplets may have settled, which is why hand washing is so important.
You know the basics of avoiding a disease that’s transmitted by droplets (including cold and flu), but let’s go over them again anyway:
Wash your hands often, including before you eat and before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Practice “respiratory etiquette,” coughing or sneezing into your elbow or a tissue (which you properly dispose of) rather than your hands.
Stay home if you’re sick, and avoid close contact with people who appear to be sick.
Disinfect any surface you’re concerned about. Bleach and other disinfectants that kill other coronaviruses are likely to work here.
A mask will not help you very much (if at all), and you’re best off leaving masks to healthcare professionals, who need them more than you do. But if you do wear a mask—for example, if you yourself are sick—make sure you use it correctly.
Again, watch those trustworthy sources for updates on the best ways to stay safe as we learn more about the virus.
Consider how you might handle disruptions to your life
If things get serious in your area, “social distancing” methods may be employed to keep people from getting together and swapping germs. This means schools may close, for example, as they did in some parts of the U.S. in 2009 when the H1N1 flu was spreading. In China, some Lunar New Year celebrations were cancelled as the coronavirus began to spread. It’s possible that similar closings and cancellations could occur here.
Employers may also be encouraged to expand their policies on sick leave, and to allow employees to work from home. If you employ people or have some influence at your workplace, it may not be too early to start thinking about these policies.
In the event of a serious outbreak, medical facilities may be extra busy with patients who have coronavirus or who have symptoms of the disease. Already, personal protective supplies, like masks, are in short supply. If you need medical care frequently, it may make sense to talk to your providers about how to plan, for example whether they recommend having extra medication or supplies on hand.
Update your home emergency supplies
A full-on post-apocalyptic scenario is extremely unlikely, but it’s always good to be prepared for minor disruptions to life for any reason. If plans are cancelled or if you need to stay home because you yourself are sick, you’ll be glad you have supplies like bottled water and non-perishable food on hand. Your home emergency kit will also come in handy for winter storms, natural disasters, power outages, and other out-of-the-ordinary happenings.