COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, was first discovered in China in late 2019. The first U.S. case was detected in January 2020, in a recent traveller who arrived in Washington State. Since its early beginnings, the story of COVID-19 has been rapidly evolving, with new information coming out daily.
On March 11th, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak to be a pandemic, and measures have been enacted in countries around the world in order to limit the spread. As of this point in time, the U.S. has more confirmed cases than any other country in the world, and that number is changing by the moment.
Keeping in mind that this is a rapidly moving situation, this is a summary of what we know so far:
Who is getting sick?
People of all ages have gotten sick, although cases tend to be more severe in older patients or those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or a compromised immune system. That still doesn’t mean that young people aren’t at risk of serious complications or death, and even those afflicted with mild cases can still spread the infection to someone else who might develop severe complications.
What are the symptoms?
The primary symptoms are a fever, cough and shortness of breath, typically manifesting within 2-14 days of exposure. Less common symptoms include sore throat, muscle and body aches, gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea and a temporary loss in taste or smell.
What do we know about the virus?
We have its genome. The virus has been isolated and sequenced, and we know it’s part of the coronavirus family. Some coronaviruses cause mild, cold-like illnesses, while others are more severe. If you recall the SARS outbreak that occurred in China in 2003, or MERS in the Middle East (discovered in 2012), both were coronaviruses.
The official name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2, although even the World Health Organisation has backed away from using that name, as it dredges up memories of the disease SARS. Instead, people usually simply call it the coronavirus, or more specifically, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Is there a cure or a vaccine?
Not yet. Several treatments are being tested right now, but none have been verified in rigorous clinical trials. There are also vaccines in development, but experts have warned that it will likely be 12 to 18 months before one is widely available.
What has the spread looked like?
Although the virus originated in China, it has since spread around the world, with the first case in the U.S. detected in January. Since then, cases have multiplied rapidly, to the point that on March 11th, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak to be a pandemic.
Since then, the number of cases in the United States has risen exponentially, while a number of lockdown and stay at home orders have been issued, meant to enforce physical distancing measures that might slow the virus’ spread. This includes restricting restaurants to drive-thru or pickup only, shutting down bars and retail stores, requiring all non-essential employees work from home and the cancellations of all sporting events and large gatherings.
What should I do?
It is absolutely essential everyone do their part to limit the spread of COVID-19. This means maintaining a distance of at least six feet from people outside of your immediate family group, limiting trips out of the home to the absolute essentials like going to grocery store or pharmacy, and practicing safe hygiene practices, which includes frequent and thorough hand-washing and disinfecting high-contact surfaces.
For people who are showing symptoms, it is essential that they self-isolate; for people who may have been exposed, a strict quarantine, one in which they don’t leave the house under any circumstance, is in order. These measures will help slow the spread of the disease so hospitals and healthcare workers can handle the numbers of people who are sick at one time.
This is a continuously evolving situation, which means that it is important to stay up-to-date on current guidelines and recommendations. In the meantime, take every precaution you can to avoid getting you or others sick. We are all in this together.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article, originally titled “What is the Coronavirus and How Much Should You Worry About It?” that was originally published on 01/21/20. The article has been updated to reflect a rapidly changing global crisis.