In the midst of this global COVID-19 pandemic, nobody remains untouched. We all want to know the facts — without bells and whistles — but it can be hard to get an overview of all basic facts about the novel coronavirus in one place, without clicking through many links or landing in sensationalized territory.
This health page serves to offer you the basic and science-backed facts — what is COVID-19, how is it transmitted, how contagious is it, and what is the possible range of symptoms? But also, how can you best protect yourself, what should you do if you think you are sick with COVID-19, and what do you need to know if you are caring for someone who has the novel coronavirus?
For news, you can follow our COVID-19 updates page.
SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: What exactly are they, and what’s the difference?
This is a question about lexicology, rather than virology, but since these terms can be seen in the news everyday, and might confuse readers, they should be clarified. The name of this virus strain is SARS-COV-2. This virus causes the disease known as COVID-19.
There is even more room for confusion. When first discovered, this virus was referred to as the novel coronavirus, which basically means “a new type of coronavirus”. It was also described simply as “coronavirus”, which is not wrong, because it is a part of the coronavirus group, a subfamily named Orthocoronavirinae in Latin.
This term was unspecific, because, even though SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus, so are, for instance, feline coronavirus, which can cause a completely different disease, unrelated to this one that can only infects felids, or other coronaviruses that cause diarrhea in dogs, pigs and other mammals.
Up until recently, this virus didn’t have a name. After RNA sequencing, and comparing the results to other viral RNAs mapped, scientists came to the conclusion that this isn’t a completely new species of a virus. It’s rather a strain of the virus which caused the SARS epidemic 17 years ago. Hence, the name SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) CoV (CoronaVirus) 2.
What is the possible range of symptoms?
This is a new disease, and there is still so much to learn about it. With each day, scientists discover new things about the disease and the virus itself.
There are some things we do know:
- 87.9 percent of people affected develop a fever
- Seven out of 10 will develop a dry cough
- Fatigue is present in 38.1 percent of cases
- Muscle and joint pain affect 14.8 percent of patients
- Sore throat and headache affect approximately 14 percent each
- Some patients might also get diarrhea, but the percentage of this symptom varies from publication to publication (and it is possible that the patients tested were infected with different variations of the same virus) from 3.7 to 31 percent.
The CDC lists several emergency warning signs — in case you’re experiencing any of these, seek medical attention immediately. These signs include chest pain, trouble breathing, bluish lips or face (as a result of lower blood oxygen levels) and confusion.
As far as incubation goes, we’re not sure about that either. When we look at the statistics, as of March 12, 2020, the usual incubation period is between two and 12 days. A case in which a patient got sick 27 days after exposure has also been described, however. On the other hand, there was a case of an incubation period shorter than 24 hours. The World Healh Organization isn’t sure if it was the patient's first or second exposure to the disease.
Exactly how contagious is COVID-19?
There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is: very.
The long answer is (as previously stated), we’re not sure yet. A lot of different things need to be taken into consideration when talking about how easily this virus spreads.
The disease started in China, in a city that houses 11 million people, and is the ninth most populous city in China. In densely populated areas, an infected individual is bound to come in contact with a lot more people than, for instance, someone who lives in a remote place.
Cultural differences also need to be taken into consideration. Some cultures are more disciplined, while people in others often disregard what the authorities say. Another example of a cultural issue is, for instance, how often credit cards are used for paying, since banknotes are an effective vector of this disease.
We do know that “COVID-19 is transmitted via droplets and fomites during close unprotected contact between an infector and infectee.” (WHO, February 2020.), but virus particles have been found in the blood, feces, and urine of infected people, and even tears, in one patient. We’re still not sure if these can be sources of infection. Close contact with an infected definitely puts you at risk of an infection. Up to 85 percent of people who share a household with an infected person have tested positive for the virus.
People younger than 18 are believed to be less susceptible to this disease, and even if they do get infected, the disease usually takes a mild form. That causes a problem of its own: many people who experience mild forms of this disease could be unaware that they are infected, and might spread the illness to other people.
How is COVID-19 currently managed?
As wrong and irresponsible this might sound, COVID-19 is indeed “like a flu” in some ways. This statement wasn’t meant to encourage irresponsible behavior, but rather to describe that there is not much we can do to fight it, beyond managing the symptoms.
Although a lot of people will get better after a few weeks, with supportive care, some, mostly, but not exclusively elderly, patients might experience severe symptoms. Some even require aid in respiration, due to lower blood oxygen levels, and this is done via mechanical ventilation. These machines assist patients in breathing properly, and delivering enough oxygen to their body.
Research has previously already warned of potential shortages of pulmonary ventilators as well as staff qualified to use them during an influenza pandemic. Global shortages of mechanical ventilation are now seen in the COVID-19 pandemic. Each country has a certain number of hospital beds and ventilators, depending on the health system.
These machines are not used that often under normal circumstances, but the same study showed that many hospitals that have them already operate at capacity under normal circumstances, since they are used for diseases that affect the lungs, such as COPD or lung cancer. Those patients continue to need them during a pandemic.
This is why the doctors urge us to flatten the curve. This means that, yes, a lot of people will get infected by this disease, but if most of them are infected at the same time, hospitals won’t have the capacity to deal with them all, and a lot of people will die. On the other hand, if we manage to slow the progression of this disease, medical staff will be able to tend to each patient more effectively.
You can read more about the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a possible treatment for COVID-19 here: What We Currently Know About Hydroxychloroquine, The Potential Cure For COVID-19.
Who is most at risk of a severe case?
At the time of this writing, COVID-19 claimed over 12,000 confirmed lives.
Current data suggests that:
- 80 percent of patients will have become mildly ill or be asymptomatic when infected.
- 14 percent will become severely ill.
- 6 percent will become critically ill.
Younger people without underlying health conditions have died from it. People have a higher risk of a severe case, however, if they are older adults (over 65) and/or have underlying medical conditions. These include lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, and HIV. Anyone else who is immunocompromised may also have a more severe case. It is not yet known whether this includes pregnant women, but data from similar viruses suggests it may do.
Prevention: How to protect yourself against COVID-19
Protecting yourself from COVID-19 protects others as well — if you do not become infected, you cannot spread the virus. That is why social distancing measures that aim to flatten the curve are now in place all over the world.
The general measures everyone should follow while the pandemic is ingoing are:
- Perform hand hygiene frequently. That means washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or cleaning your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Do not touch any part of your face with unwashed hands.
- Keep at least a meter, and ideally two, between yourself and everyone outside your immediate household at all times. This distance is based on previous research, such as this study that shows people who spend time within 1.8 meters of someone with influenza have a higher risk of becoming infected. Though it is not precisely known how far droplets from sneezes and coughs can travel, this distance provides a much bigger safety net than the “packed-together” situations we are used to from everyday life.
- Clean and disinfect all frequently-touched surfaces in your home every day.
In addition, it is important to follow the instructions your government is giving you during the pandemic. If they include a recommendation against wearing facemasks if you are healthy (unless you are caring for someone with COVID-19 or are a healthcare worker), it is because there is a shortage of masks. They need to be available to those who truly require them, such as infected people and healthcare workers. If disposable gloves and facemasks are available, you may wear them any time you go outside.
What to do if you think you may have COVID-19
The majority of people who get COVID-19 will be afflicted with milder cases. With many healthcare systems currently overwhelmed, those people will be asked to recover at home — something that also reduces the risk that they will infect others.
If you have some of the symptoms of COVID-19, follow your government’s instructions. They generally include:
- Not simply rushing to the doctor in person, but calling ahead. There are most likely dedicated numbers you can call in your area.
- Not leaving your home. Stay in a separate room, and if possible do not share a bathroom with anyone. Avoid close contact with anyone. If you are in the same room as other people (only when necessary), wear a mask.
- Frequently washing your hands. Sneeze or cough into tissues where available, and dispose of them in a bin liner without touching the outside. Cough or sneeze into your elbow otherwise.
- Clean and disinfect your own room and bathroom every day if possible, and perform your own laundry.
- Get in touch with your healthcare service immediately if your symptoms worsen.
Caring for someone who has COVID-19? Here’s what you need to know
What steps should you take if you live with someone recovering from COVID-19 at home, or if you are a care worker responsible for cleaning the home of a patient? What should you do if a loved one you don’t live with has the virus and you want to help in a way that will minimize the risk for you (and thus also your risk of transmitting the virus)?
The patient should:
- Stay in a separate room, away from other people, all the time except to go to the bathroom.
- If multiple bathrooms are available in the home, they should use one bathroom — close to the room they are staying in — that nobody else uses.
- Use a set of bedding, towels, and other washable items that nobody else uses.
- Wear a facemask whenever they do spend time in the same room as someone else.
People sharing a household or those who work in care and cleaning services should:
- Practice personal hygiene measures — wash your hands frequently with soap and water or perform hand hygiene with hand sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol, avoid touching any part of your face with your hands, and wear a facemask and disposable gloves if they are available.
- Wipe down frequently-touched surfaces outside the room the person is staying in, which would include doorknobs, tabletops, light switches, switches on coffee makers, taps, and sinks with disinfectant everyday. (Or otherwise, every day you are with the person.)
- If you need to do a sick person’s laundry, wear a facemask and disposable gloves, and keep the laundry away from your body. If you must help the person with their personal hygiene, the same rules apply. Always perform hand hygiene immediately after removing disposable gloves, and do so properly. If you must clean the room the person is staying in, do so only as necessary, and if possible while they are in the bathroom. If you must clean the person’s bathroom, wait a while after they use it before entering.
- Do not unnecessarily have close contact with the person, even if you think they are feeling really lonely. If you want to cheer them up, do so via the internet or a phone call.
People who don’t need to visit an infected person recovering at home, but want to help, can:
- Do shopping, including for medications or masks, or pay the bills — but place anything you want to give to the person outside their front door and leave before the patient or someone in their household picks it up. Do not enter the home.
- Ask how they’re doing via the internet or phone calls. They may be feeling scared and lonely and appreciate you checking in on them, or they may just want to spend their recovery time in solitude. Ask, so you don’t bug them.
At the moment, not everyone with COVID-19 symptoms can be tested. Not everyone previously confirmed to have COVID-19 and recovering at home can be tested to check if they are now negative for the virus, either. So, when is it safe to lift these isolation measures a bit, and start spending time in the same room as a patient again?
The CDC recommends waiting until all these conditions are met:
- The person has not had a fever for a full 72 hours (three days) without the use of fever reducers.
- All their other symptoms are a lot better.
- It has been at least seven days since the onset of their initial symptoms, or, if they will be tested, they have had two negative tests that were performed at least 24 hours apart.
People currently infected, and their caregivers, should follow the instructions of their local health authority, however.
Back to top
We are all, rightfully, concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic. The course it takes is not entirely beyond our control, however. When we all make an effort to stay informed, take the recommended precautions, and follow instructions if we believe we are sick, we help our healthcare systems stay operational so they can tend to the most high-risk patients. We help save others’ lives, and we protect our own health, as well.