The ongoing outbreak of a newly discovered, sometimes fatal coronavirus has many people wondering how much they should be altering their daily lives to avoid infection. As the disease known as COVID-19 has begun spreading locally in parts of the U.S., we’ve compiled answers to commonly asked questions submitted by our readers, friends, and coworkers.
There are still a lot of unknowns about the new coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2. That includes things like how long it can survive outside of the body. But coronaviruses aren’t a new threat to people in general: Other types regularly cause the common cold, and the new virus is genetically close to the well-studied SARS virus. That means we can make some pretty educated guesses about it, according to Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents state and local public health agencies across the U.S.
Plescia told Gizmodo that the virus can likely only “live” on most surfaces for a few hours. And there’s nothing special about its biology that makes it impervious to household disinfectants, so those should work, too. (Yesterday, the EPA released a list of recommended disinfectants.) Health officials have warned that fomite exposure (meaning surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus) could be a possible source of transmission, but the biggest risk of catching it remains close contact with infected people and breathing in droplets from someone’s cough or sneeze.
Surgical masks—the ones you most commonly see people wearing in public—are better at catching the very small viral particles that an infected person coughs out than they are at keeping a healthy person from coming into contact with viral particles. Masks that form a seal against the face and contain built-in air filters are more effective at preventing transmission, but these must fit properly and be put on and taken off correctly to be effective.
Experts Gizmodo has spoken with have argued that masks can have an indirect positive effect, because they remind people to not touch their faces. But in many places now, the domestic supply of face masks is in serious danger of running out, posing a risk to healthcare workers (for whom wearing masks is a crucial part of job safety). So our best advice for now is to wear a mask if you are sick or are caring for a sick person, and stick to frequent hand washing, avoiding touching your face, and maintaining distance from others to prevent infection otherwise.
There’s no simple answer. If you’re thinking of traveling within the U.S., you should pay close attention to warnings listed on relevant state government websites; if traveling abroad, the U.S. State Department has a running list of current advisories. Otherwise, you should be OK.
That said, many countries are still trying to contain their outbreaks through quarantines and isolation, and the situation is changing daily. So you should prepare for the possibility that you could get stuck somewhere longer than expected (bring extra medicine, a laptop, etc). Many workplaces are also starting to enact their own travel restrictions, while organizations are canceling their large gatherings and conventions, so keep a close eye on any events you’ve been planning to attend.
The potentially dangerous part of shaking hands during this outbreak isn’t the shaking itself—it’s touching your eyes, mouth, or nose with those same hands immediately after. So if you don’t want to feel rude, you can still shake, but wash your hands as soon as you can with water and soap or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
We don’t know. Recent outbreaks of newly discovered diseases like SARS have started out strong but completely sputtered out within months, never to return since. Other diseases, like Zika, have been introduced into new parts of the world like South America, causing widespread epidemics in 2016. But though Zika continues to infect people there, these outbreaks are nowhere near as potent as they were back then.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, could certainly follow Zika’s path, becoming a mild cold like those caused by other species of coronavirus. But it’s not a rule that new diseases that become endemic always mellow out (case in point: HIV). Similarly, there’s the hope warmer temperatures may blunt the outbreak, setting the stage for it to turn into a seasonal disease like the flu. But that’s no guarantee, given that we’re currently seeing COVID-19 pop up in warmer countries in South America as well as in Australia, fresh off its summer season.
The list of recommended home remedies for the coronavirus, from this reporter’s experience, so far includes elderberry extract, garlic, and various herbal teas. Elsewhere, well-known cranks have tried to peddle things like homeopathy and liquid silver.
The truth is that, compared to bacterial infections, viral infections are just harder to treat. There are no approved treatments for the coronavirus, though there are some experimental and off-label antiviral drugs being tested out now that have shown some promise. Because most people (somewhere around 85 percent, if not more) will have a mild presentation, more like a bad cold than a life-threatening pneumonia, over-the-counter drugs including acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g., ibuprofen) should help with symptoms of fever. Zinc lozenges have also been mentioned as a way to prevent or shorten coronavirus infections, but there’s no strong evidence they can do so.
Should you rely on home remedies to keep you safe from the coronavirus? Probably not, and you definitely shouldn’t trust any product being sold to you as a “cure.” But so long as you’re not avoiding real medical care or taking any medication that could interact badly with a home remedy, it’s not the end of the world if you drink some garlic smoothies. The placebo effect is very real, after all.
This question covers a lot of concerns people have had, from if they should stockpile household supplies to whether it’s still okay to visit their older relatives.
The virus might be able to spread from people who don’t feel sick, but we don’t think these silent cases are a major driver of the outbreak. There have been reports of the virus’s incubation period—the time it takes to show symptoms once infected—being as long as 27 days, but again, most people seem to get sick within two weeks time and as early as two days post-infection. So if you’re not feeling sick, it should be fine to visit and spend time with high-risk people (elderly and/or immunocompromised people) without worrying that you are infecting them; be sure to follow all the usual advice, though, like washing your hands often.
You might also be wondering how worried and proactive you should be. For weeks, public health experts and reporters (including this one) have compared COVID-19 to the flu, which regularly kills tens of thousands of people in the U.S. And while people should take the flu more seriously than they do, this outbreak isn’t something to brush off—it could be worse than a typical flu season.
Unlike the flu, we don’t have a vaccine or treatments to blunt the impact or spread of COVID-19. While its true fatality rate is unclear, it’s likely several times more deadly than flu, especially for older and immunocompromised people. Right now, health agencies are trying to find and contain local outbreaks of the disease. But these efforts will probably fail, and you should be preparing to make changes to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
You don’t need to drastically upturn your life yet. But maybe you can buy a larger supply of nonperishable food and other things you regularly use, especially soap. If you have a chronic illness that requires medication, make sure you have a steady supply of your prescriptions that can last a few weeks.
If COVID-19 begins spreading in your city, start working from home if you can. If you’re sick (even if you think it’s just a mild cold), definitely stay home and away from others. If you’re becoming seriously ill—to the point where you’re having trouble breathing—see a doctor to get tested. Unfortunately, all of these things are going to be much harder to do for people working low-wage jobs with no paid leave.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence announced that all testing would be covered by public and private insurance, and the Trump administration is floating a similar proposal for covering needed treatment for uninsured people. While it’s still difficult to test lots of people in the U.S. for the virus, that should start changing soon.
More broadly, it’s okay to feel scared when you hear someone cough and to avoid social gatherings with large groups of people. But don’t let that fear turn to hatred and prejudice of others—the virus doesn’t care about the ethnicity of someone it infects, and neither should you.
Most people who get sick, especially young children, will make it through fine, and that’s good. But don’t dismiss this as a harmless nuisance either—it’s better to make plans now, before the situation worsens.