Practical Tips to Prepare for the Coronavirus

Keep calm, and wash your hands

Follow Elemental’s ongoing coverage of the coronavirus outbreak here.

CCoronavirus is here. “We’ve reached a point at the outbreak where people need to start paying attention,” says Catharine Paules, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Penn State Health. “Do I think people need to change what they’re doing in daily life right this second? No. But I think that people need to be watching the outbreak very carefully and paying attention to things that the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health are advising them.”

A new virus is scary, and COVID-19 can be deadly, but so far it’s only been lethal in a small percentage of people. Currently, the death rate is estimated at 2.3% in Wuhan, China and 0.7% for the rest of the world. For comparison, the death rate for MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), another coronavirus, is 34.4%, while the death rate for flu is roughly 0.1%. However, tens of thousands of people in the U.S. die annually from the flu but not from MERS because the influenza virus is much more contagious — up to 10% of the population are projected to get the flu every year, and that’s even with a vaccine available.

COVID-19 appears to be as contagious as the flu, and there’s currently no vaccine for the virus, meaning it’s possible a large number of people could become infected. Some of those people will likely die from the disease, however, many more people infected with the virus will have relatively mild or even no symptoms and be able to recover at home. So, while people shouldn’t freak out about the virus, they should do everything they can to prevent a full-fledged outbreak.

Here’s what you can do to prepare:

How can you protect yourself from catching the coronavirus?

Just like with any virus, basic sanitation and disease prevention strategies are your best bet. It’s not sexy, but washing your hands thoroughly — at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water — really can kill the virus. In a pinch, alcohol-based hand sanitizers will work, too. Also, avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes so that if the virus is on your hands it can’t get into your body.

Similar to the flu, COVID-19 is thought to be primarily spread through droplets in coughs and sneezes. Those droplets can travel up to six feet, so if somebody near you is coughing or sneezing, stand back (as you always should during flu season). You don’t want those droplets landing on you or getting in your nose or mouth.

The virus can also survive for at least a couple of hours and possibly longer on surfaces or objects, which you can then touch and become infected from. If you’ve been out in public, a good practice is to wash your hands as soon as you get inside, and certainly before you eat or touch your face. Bleach and alcohol-based cleaners are also effective at destroying the virus and good to use on potentially infected surfaces.

“Even though those don’t sound super exciting, they work, and those are things we should be doing,” Paules says.

What about the surgical masks you see everyone wearing? Experts say there may be some benefit, but just how much is unclear. And if you’re wearing it improperly or if you have facial hair the protection a mask offers is pretty much nil.

“The common surgical masks are not designed to prevent us from acquiring a viral infection. There are really no scientific data of note that would commend the wearing of masks,” says William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Might they provide a little bit of protection? Yes, it just hasn’t been well documented.”

A new virus is scary, and COVID-19 can be deadly, but so far it’s only been lethal in a small percentage of people.

What should you do if there is a lockdown?

If there is a full-blown community outbreak of COVID-19, the CDC may recommend people engage in so-called social distancing. Essentially, don’t go out in public unless you absolutely have to, and stay as far away from other people as you can. The U.S. likely won’t be able to institute a lockdown as severe as China’s leadership did in Wuhan, but rules and recommendations could be put into place. If this happens, it’s much better to prepare now rather than later.

“Now’s the time to be dusting off preparedness plans. I think it’s every citizen’s prerogative to ask their employers and ask schools what their plans are,” Paules says.

Check with your employer about telecommuting, and if the CDC recommends it, work from home if you can. If you feel under the weather, take advantage of your sick leave. Whatever you do, do not go into the office if you’re ill (this recommendation applies for any infection, not just the new outbreak). If you work in the service industry, working from home may not be an option, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask your employer what their plan is. The CDC has a preparedness guide for businesses of all types to help create and implement an outbreak strategy.

Talk to your family and make sure your personal plans are in place, with special consideration for elderly relatives and young children. Ask your kids’ schools what their response will be, if they might shut down or offer online classes, and start to consider childcare options. If you or your loved ones have preexisting health conditions, check with your doctor about virtual appointments and ask if there are any special precautions you should take to avoid infection. Stock up on several weeks’ worth of medications, too.

Anticipate that you may have to cancel outings, especially if they involve big crowds like a concert or basketball game. Be ready to perform religious services privately instead of going to church, temple, or mosque. Work out at home instead of the gym. Use alternatives to public transportation if you can, and again, use soap, hand sanitizers, and surface cleaners liberally.

“Anything one can do to provide space between yourself and your fellow human beings is good,” Schafner says. “The recommendation will be, ‘Stay as far apart as possible.’”

While it sounds extreme, at some point people might be discouraged from going to the store, or supply chains could become disrupted so supermarkets might close. If it looks like this could happen, stock up on food and essential supplies within reason. Think diapers, toiletries, nonperishable groceries, cleaning supplies, pet food, and toilet paper. If you really want to plan ahead, you could cook and freeze a casserole or two now, one for you and one for your neighbor.

What should you do if you think you’ve contracted COVID-19?

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and occasionally nausea and diarrhea. If you think you’ve contracted the virus, don’t just show up at your doctor’s office or the emergency room; you don’t want to infect the kid in the waiting room with a broken arm. Instead, call your doctor’s office and ask where you should go. Health care facilities have pandemic preparedness plans, and many hospitals are ready to set up special clinics for people who may have the disease, as they often do for particularly bad flu outbreaks.

This being America, unfortunately you should also get ready for a steep medical bill. One man in Miami was charged $3,270 after getting tested for the coronavirus when he came down with flu-like symptoms upon returning from a trip to China. His insurance company has said it will reduce the fee to $1,400 if he can prove the flu wasn’t related to a preexisting condition.

The good news is a clinical trial is already underway to test a new drug against COVID-19, so if you contract the disease, you should ask your medical team about enrolling. Scientists are hard at work to develop a vaccine for the virus, too.

Again, it’s important not to freak out. While it is possible many people could become ill and even die from the virus, for the vast majority of people the greatest impact will be changes to their daily routine. In order to reduce your chance of infection and protect yourself and others, it’s important to start planning with your family now in case the virus does emerge in your town.

“I think a little advanced planning and discretion even at the family level is prudent and appropriate so we’re all not caught flat-footed,” Schaffner says. “It’s wise to think about things that affect you and your family personally.”

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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