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Over the past few weeks, an increasing number of countries across the world have struggled to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Since the outbreak began, there have been over 109,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus reported in at least 95 countries — and that number will inevitably continue to rise. In late February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the United States should brace for a domestic outbreak, with the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases saying, “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.” As of Monday, COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in 34 states, with Washington state, New York, and California suffering from the largest outbreaks.
So now that the coronavirus is spreading across the U.S., how worried should you be? And what precautions should you take? We spoke to experts in epidemiology and immunology about what measures people can take to protect themselves.
Know the symptoms.
According to the CDC, symptoms of the coronavirus include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, which can appear anywhere between two days and two weeks after exposure. While health experts are still learning about how the coronavirus spreads, they believe it is largely spread through respiratory droplets that leave an infected person’s mouth or nose. Some experts believe that the virus is transmitted primarily through coughing and sneezing, though it’s also likely that it can spread through surface contact. In other words, if an infected person sneezes on a surface, a person who touches that surface could pick up the virus.
According to China’s most comprehensive report about the outbreak, published in mid-February, 80 percent of novel coronavirus cases are mild, with symptoms similar to a common cold or seasonal flu. Additionally, some people do not show symptoms for up to two weeks after they’ve been infected, meaning it’s possible for people to transmit the virus without knowing they’re infected — which has made the coronavirus a challenge to contain.
Wash your hands.
Washing your hands regularly is the best way to protect yourself from the coronavirus — assuming you’re doing it correctly. The CDC recommends getting your hands wet with warm or cold water; lathering your entire hands, including under the nails, with soap; scrubbing your hands for 20 seconds; rinsing with clean water; and finally, either letting your hands air-dry or using a clean towel.
“Wash them especially well if you’re about to eat,” Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, wrote in the New York Times. “Wash them after you’ve blown your nose, coughed or sneezed. Make it routine that all members of the household wash their hands when they get home.”
It’s also not a bad idea to carry around a hand sanitizer for times when you’re not near a sink, though you should make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol. However, experts stress that washing your hands thoroughly — and frequently — is the best preventative measure.
Don’t buy a mask (unless you actually need one).
For the majority of people, face masks will not prevent you from catching the coronavirus. Instead, the CDC recommends masks only for people who are already infected or who are in close contact with people who are infected, like hospital and health-care workers.
“Widespread, unnecessary use of masks will lead to shortages, making it more difficult for people who need them — health-care workers and people who have potentially been exposed — to be able to get them,” Mark Lurie, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University’s School of Public Health, told the Cut.
Stop touching your face!
In addition to washing your hands frequently, the CDC also recommends that you avoid touching your face — specifically, your eyes, nose, and mouth, which are entry portals for coronavirus and other germs. If an infected person coughs or sneezes on a surface, and you touch that contaminated surface and then touch your facial mucous membranes — the eyes, nose, and mouth — you could become infected.
Stock up on prescriptions and household supplies.
According to the New York Times, experts are recommending stocking up on at least a month’s worth of prescription or over-the-counter medicine, in the event that you have to self-quarantine. Experts are also advising buying extra shelf-stable food, cleaning supplies, and other necessary household items.
Practice social distancing.
If there’s an outbreak in your area, experts say it’s wise to practice “social distancing” measures to mitigate the spread of viruses. These measures typically entail keeping your distance from other people — the CDC recommends standing at least six feet away, if possible — and avoiding crowded spaces. (Some countries like France have already implemented such measures, like banning gatherings of more than 1,000 people.)
If you’re sick …
Be cautious: If you experience any cold or flulike symptoms, you should stay home (if you can afford to.) And even if you aren’t sick, it’s a good idea to work from home if you can. As Katie Heaney noted on the Cut, every time we leave our home, we increase our risk of exposure and transmission, potentially unknowingly.
According to the Times, if you think you have the coronavirus, you should reach out to your doctor or local health department, or follow the instructions on the CDC’s website.
If you’re pregnant …
As of now, the CDC does not recommend specific precautions for pregnant women, as there’s a lack of “information from published scientific reports about susceptibility of pregnant women to COVID-19.” However, the CDC notes that because pregnant women’s immune systems are in flux, it’s possible they could be more susceptible. “It makes sense that a pregnant woman would be at higher risk of complications from this virus than a nonpregnant one,” Dr. Steven Gordon, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, told the New York Times last week.
If you have a chronic illness, are elderly, or have a compromised immune system …
While COVID-19 will cause mild symptoms in the majority of infected people, Jan Carette, an associate professor at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, says that the elderly — especially those with chronic conditions, like hypertension or diabetes — are at greater risk for more severe disease. In this case, he recommends that those who are especially susceptible practice the above precautions as well as avoid people who display flulike symptoms.
If you’re traveling …
If you have upcoming travel plans, it’s a good idea to stay up-to-date on the CDC’s travel warnings for specific countries. In general, it’s safest to avoid nonessential travel to countries with a sustained COVID-19 presence; right now, this includes Iran, China, South Korea, and Italy. For individuals who are especially susceptible to viral infections, including the elderly and those with existing medical conditions, the CDC advises avoiding travel to Japan as well.
Currently, the CDC doesn’t have any additional recommendations for domestic travel, though this could change as the virus spreads further in the United States. But according to the CDC’s website, the risk of infection on an airplane is low. “Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily,” they write. However, they recommend that travelers wash their hands frequently and avoid contact with sick passengers.
This post has been updated.