February 28, 2020
Clinical Contributors to this Story
Thomas Bader, M.D. contributes to topics such as Medical Quality, Obstetrics and Gynecology.
In December 2019, an outbreak of infections caused by a new coronavirus was identified and quickly made headlines across the world. The outbreak was first recognized in Wuhan, China, but cases of the infection (now named COVID-19) have been identified in virtually every country in the world. The United States has by far the most COVID-19 cases of any country in the world, and New Jersey has reported more cases than all but a few countries.
Coronaviruses are part of a family of viruses which are an extremely common cause of colds and other upper respiratory infections. You may be thinking – am I at risk for this new infection? What should I do? We’ve got you covered.
Can I get COVID-19?
“Since there is no vaccine for COVID-19, everyone could be at risk for getting the illness,” says Thomas Bader, M.D., vice president of Medical Quality and Performance Improvement at Hackensack Meridian Health.
It’s important to remember that for most people who are healthy, the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low. The vast majority of individuals who become infected are able to manage their disease at home.
Older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions may be at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19.
How does COVID-19 spread?
“This virus is still relatively new and we’re still learning how easily it spreads from person to person,” notes Dr. Bader. Current understanding about how the virus that causes the COVID-19 infection spreads is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses.
Person-to-person spread occurs:
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet)
- Via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes
- When these droplets land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or are inhaled into the lungs
Spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects
It may be possible that a person can become infected with COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the new coronavirus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
What can you do to avoid getting sick?
On March 29, the White House announced that all Americans must continue to avoid nonessential travel, going to work, eating at bars and restaurants, or gathering in groups of more than 10 until at least April 30. This practice of social distancing will allow health care workers to focus on caring for the most ill patients and seems to be “flattening the curve.”
The same precautions you take to avoid the flu will also help prevent the spread of this new virus. Here are four steps you can take to protect yourself and others from viruses and help stop the spread of germs:
- Stay home and practice social distancing.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Clean your hands. Frequent washing helps protect you and others from germs. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.Germs are often spread this way.
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hand or fist.
- Wear a mask or cloth face covering if you must go out.
How is COVID-19 different than the flu and other viral infections?
COVID-19 causes flu-like symptoms including:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which are thought to cause up to 30% of common cold cases. Certain strains like SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 can cause more serious illness.
What should you do if you think you may be at risk?
If you develop a fever or symptoms of respiratory illness, such as cough or shortness of breath, you should call your primary doctor right away or use a telemedicine service like our Convenient Care Now. You should always call first. Most conditions can be managed over the phone or with telemedicine. By calling first, you likely will be able to save yourself a trip to the doctor’s office. And, if you do need to be seen in-person, your call will allow your doctor’s office to prepare for your visit.
Learn more about what to do if you think you have COVID-19.
Should I travel inside the U.S.?
Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in all 50 states, and some areas are experiencing significant community spread of the disease. Many states, including New Jersey, have instituted bans on all non-essential travel.
Crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase chances of getting COVID-19, if there are other travelers with the illness. There are several things you should consider when deciding whether it is safe for you to travel for essential purposes:
- Is COVID-19 spreading in the area where you’re going?
If COVID-19 is spreading at your destination, but not where you live, you may be more likely to get infected if you travel there than if you stay home. Check your destination’s local health department website for more information on conditions in that area. Keep in mind that although cases of COVID-19 might not be high in certain areas right now, it is likely cases will soon grow significantly in all areas of the U.S.
- Will you or your travel companion(s) be in close contact with others during your trip?
Your risk of exposure to respiratory viruses like coronavirus may increase in crowded settings, particularly closed-in settings with little air circulation.
Please note, in many areas settings like these have already been closed and events have been canceled to help keep everyone safe.
- Are you or your travel companion(s) more likely to get severe illness if you get COVID-19?
People at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19 are older adults and people of any age with serious chronic medical conditions (such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes). CDC recommends that travelers at higher risk for COVID-19 complications avoid all nonessential travel.
- Do you have a plan for taking time off from work or school, in case you are told to stay home for 14 days for self-monitoring or if you get sick with COVID-19?
Many locations are directing individuals to stay home to self-monitor and avoid contact with others for up to 14 days after travel. If you become sick with COVID-19, you may be unable to go to work or school until you’re considered noninfectious.
- Do you live with someone who is older or has a serious, chronic medical condition?
If you get sick with COVID-19 upon your return from travel, your household contacts may also be at risk of infection. Household contacts who are older adults or persons of any age with severe chronic medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness and life-threatening complications from COVID-19.
Next Steps & Resources
The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.
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