COVID-19 continues to change daily life in the United States. The U.S. declared a national emergency in mid-March, and Americans have been adjusting to strict guidelines and mandates instructing them to stay home, avoid unnecessary travel, and stay 6 feet away from other people.
Below is a list of five things that, according to Yale Medicine, you should know about the coronavirus outbreak heading into the end of this month:
What we know about COVID-19 is changing rapidly
What we do know about coronaviruses is that they cause respiratory tract illnesses that range from the common cold to such potentially deadly illnesses as SARS, which killed almost 800 people. COVID-19 is the first pandemic known to be caused by the emergence of a new coronavirus—novel influenza viruses caused four pandemics in the last century (which is why the response to the new disease is being adapted from existing guidance developed in anticipation of an influenza pandemic).
According to the CDC, reported COVID-19 illnesses have ranged from mild (with no reported symptoms in some cases) to severe, including illness resulting in death. People ages 65 and older, those living in a nursing home or long-term care facility, and people of all ages with underlying health conditions seem to be at higher risk of developing serious illness. But doctors are still working to develop a complete clinical picture of COVID-19, as evidenced by a CDC report noting that 20% of those who have been hospitalized for the disease in the U.S. are younger adults (between 20 and 44 years old).
Strict measures are critical for slowing the disease
While no one knows for sure how the situation will progress around COVID-19, studies of influenza have shown that pandemics begin with an “investigation” phase, followed by “recognition,” “initiation,” and “acceleration” phases, according to the CDC, and that is followed by deceleration, during which there is a decrease in illnesses. Finally, there is a "preparation" phase, where the pandemic has subsided, and public health officials monitor virus activity and prepare for possible additional waves of infection. Different parts of the country can be in different phases of the pandemic, and the length of each phase can vary depending, in part, on the public health response.
The U.S. is currently in an acceleration phase, when the peak of illnesses occurs, and efforts are aimed at “flattening the curve.” If you map the number of COVID-19 cases over time, the expectation is that it will peak at some point—on a graph this peak would mirror a surge in patients (which could overwhelm hospitals and health care providers). Flattening the curve would mean there would be fewer patients during that period, and hospitals would be better able to manage the demands of patients who are sick with COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Infection prevention is key
There are many things you can do to protect yourself and the people you interact with. As with a cold, a flu vaccine won’t protect people from developing COVID-19. “The best thing you can do at this point is take care of yourself the way you would to prevent yourself from getting the flu,” says Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist Joseph Vinetz, MD. “You know you can get the flu when people sneeze and cough on you, or when you touch a doorknob. Washing hands—especially before eating and touching your face, and after going to the bathroom—and avoiding other people who have flu-like symptoms are the best strategies at this point.”
The CDC also recommends the following preventive actions:
- Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Dry them thoroughly with an air dryer or clean towel. If soap isn’t available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Stay home if you’re sick.
- Avoid touching nose, eyes, and mouth. Use a tissue to cover a cough or sneeze, then dispose of it in the trash.
- Use a household wipe or spray to disinfect doorknobs, light switches, desks, keyboards, sinks, toilets, cell phones, and other objects and surfaces that are frequently touched.
- It may also be important to create a household plan of action. You should talk with people who need to be included in your plan, plan ways to care for those who might be at greater risk for serious complications, get to know your neighbors, and make sure you and your family have a household plan that includes ways to care for loved ones if they get sick. This includes planning a way to separate a family member who gets sick from those who are healthy, if the need arises.
Experts are working rapidly to find solutions
In the U.S., widely available testing will be important in understanding how the disease is transmitted and the true infection and mortality rates. In addition to COVID-19 testing being done by the CDC, state and local public health labs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia are currently using the CDC's COVID-19 diagnostic tests, although the number of available tests is still limited. Until there can be comprehensive testing for COVID-19, it's difficult to know how many cases have not been identified. One recent development is the first in-home test for the coronavirus. The nasal swab kit, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in mid-April, will be made available to health care and emergency workers who may have been exposed or have symptoms of the virus before it is released to the public at a later date.
If you feel ill, here's what you should do
So far, information shows the severity of COVID-19 infection ranges from very mild (sometimes with no reported symptoms at all) to severe to the point of requiring hospitalization. Symptoms can appear anywhere between 2 to 14 days after exposure, and may include:
- Difficulty breathing
You should call your medical provider for advice if you experience these symptoms, especially if you have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 or live in an area with ongoing spread of the disease.
Most people will have a mild illness and can recover at home without medical care. Seek medical attention immediately if you are at home and experience emergency warning signs, including difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or ability to arouse, or bluish lips or face. This list is not inclusive, so consult your medical provider if you notice other concerning symptoms.