Updated: Your Burning Questions About Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Risks, Answered

How is the Coronavirus spread?
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Last updated April 6, 2020

COVID-19, or the coronavirus respiratory illness, continues to spread both across the U.S. and globally. As of April 5, there were 304,826 cases and 7,616 deaths in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is tracking and responding to the outbreak.

With a global outbreak like this, people have a lot of questions. There are also a lot of unknowns, speculation and misinformation spreading along with the virus. Even well-intentioned media reporting can induce panic, which is exactly what we should avoid. For direct reporting and to stay up-to-date on the latest CDC guidelines, visit the CDC’s COVID-19 website.

Let’s start with some basic facts about the coronavirus:

  • The coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it’s now known, is a respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus discovered in China in December 2019. It’s now been detected in 155 countries across the globe including the United States.
  • This virus is transmitted through viral droplets, or a droplet containing viral particles. These are contained within a sick person’s mucus or saliva, which may be ejected from someone’s nose or mouth when they cough, sneeze, laugh, sing, breathe and talk
  • The CDC now advises that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures are especially difficult to maintain
  • Although estimates vary — both between nations and between health organizations — The Washington Post reports that the coronavirus is fatal in about 2% of cases
  • Initial research from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) shows that the elderly are most at risk of fatal complications from coronavirus infection. People with diabetes, heart disease and previous respiratory health problems may also have an increased risk

Have more questions about the coronavirus? Here are some answers to the most common questions surrounding this global pandemic.

1. What Is the Coronavirus?

The coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it’s now known, is a respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus discovered in China in December 2019. It’s now been detected in 155 countries across the globe including the United States.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that originate in animals like bats, camels and cattle which rarely spread to humans. This was the case with previous outbreaks such as SARS-CoV and MERS Co-V in 2002 and 2015 respectively. COVID-19, similar to these two other outbreaks, is a betacoronavirus, meaning its origins can be found in bats.

2. Where did COVID-19 Originate?

The epicenter of the outbreak was in Wuhan, China in the Hubei Province. It was linked to a large seafood and live animal market, which is probably where the animal-to-person spread occurred. Since then it has spread between humans inside China and outside China, with more than 170,000 cases worldwide and close to 6,705 deaths.

3. How is COVID-19 Transmitted?

This virus is transmitted through viral droplets, or a droplet containing viral particles. These are contained within a sick person’s mucus or saliva, which may be ejected from someone’s nose or mouth when they cough, sneeze, laugh, sing, breathe and talk.

If these cells get access to your cells, through your eyes, nose or mouth, you could become infected. These cells can survive on surfaces for anywhere from two hours to 9 days according to some studies, so it’s best to wash your hands after touching, well, most surfaces.

Because many cases of coronavirus infection are mild, infected people may spread the virus without displaying any symptoms.

4. Should I Use a Protective Face Mask?

The CDC now advises that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures are especially difficult to maintain, like in grocery stores or pharmacies. This is advisable particularly in areas of significant community-based transmission — like New York City. The cloth face coverings recommended are not N-95 respirators. These are critical supplies that hospitals are in dire need of for their healthcare workers and first responders. If you’d like to make your own cloth face mask you can follow the CDC’s instructions here.

5. What Is Social Distancing and Why Is It Important?

Social distancing is characterized as avoiding public spaces, avoiding direct contact with others and overall limiting movement. Big cities such as L.A. and New York have already announced major shutdowns of bars, restaurants, holiday festivities and big group gatherings.

This past month, major sports franchises including the MLB announced the suspension of spring training and that they were delaying the regular season by at least two weeks. College basketball’s March Madness was canceled, and the NBA suspended the 2019-2020 season temporarily in response to the pandemic.

All of this is done to slow the spread of the disease within the United States. Less interaction between people decreases the likelihood of it spreading to vulnerable and high-risk populations, and hopefully will spread out infections over time so as to not overwhelm our healthcare system.

If you’re young, healthy, or low-risk in terms of this disease experts urge you to stay at home as much as possible, avoid big group gatherings, order takeout or cook at home and work from home if possible. We all need to do our part to stop the spread.

5. How Widespread Is This Disease Currently?

On March 11, the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the WHO. As of April 5 globally, there are 1,289,380 confirmed cases and 70,590 deaths. There are currently 304,826 cases in the US spread across 49 states.

6. What Symptoms Should I Look Out For?

The current symptoms for COVID-19 include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. They may appear 2-14 days after exposure. One may also experience a mild case of this virus without displaying any symptoms. If you are suffering from respiratory symptoms and are worried you have the coronavirus, take your temperature and see if you have a fever. If you do, contact your doctor and ask about your best course of action. In most cases, self-isolation is the most responsible choice, but talk to your doctor before making a decision.

The CDC introduced a new coronavirus system checker on their website to help people determine if they have common smyptoms of COVID-19 and what treatment to seek. The CDC named the new chatbot Clara, and although the tool can’t provide a definitive diagnosis, it’s designed to help Americans “make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care.”

Clara uses AI to screen patients online and help healthcare professionals handle the mass influx of inquiries related to coronavirus. If you’re concerned you may have COVID-19, you can try Clara for yourself on the CDC website.

7. How Can I Protect Myself?

Currently, there is no known cure for COVID-19, and while a vaccine is currently in the works, it could take up to a year if not more due to the rigorous testing required to assure safety.

  • To protect yourself, follow best practices for minimizing germ spread:
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue
  • Thoroughly washing and sanitize your hands often
  • Avoid contact with sick individuals
  • Make space between yourself and people who are displaying symptoms in public
  • Practice social distancing, avoid group gatherings over 50 people, order takeout, and work from home if possible

If you are experiencing mild symptoms, isolate yourself at home for the duration of your illness. If you have been to China, Iran, Italy or any area with a widespread outbreak recently, or been exposed to someone with a confirmed COVID-19 virus, the CDC recommends isolating yourself for 14 days in order to minimize the spread of the virus.

8. Should I Avoid Traveling Right Now?

Currently, the CDC is recommending the public avoid nonessential travel to four nations including Italy, South Korea, Iran and China. On Friday March 13 at midnight the US instituted a travel ban from all countries in Europe. On Monday March 16, Ireland and the UK were added. The ban will last for 30 days as the situation develops and does not apply to US citizens and long-term residents.

Otherwise, the risk to travelers in the United States remains relatively low, although in the interest of practicing social distancing, nothing but urgent travel is recommended. Follow the same protection guidelines described above when traveling domestically.

Airports have been screening international passengers from China, Italy and South Korea and the United States has banned all travel from Iran and barred entry to any foreign citizen who has visited Iran in the last 14 days.

If you do have international travel planned, check the websites of all the attractions and museums you intend to visit. Major bucket list items like the Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, have closed due to the outbreak.

9. Which is Worse, Coronavirus or the Flu?

For a while, before the virus hit the US, health officials were urging individuals to protect themselves from the flu, rather than the virus, because at that time it was a bigger threat.

That is still statistically true, but the number of domestic cases is rising steadily, and the coronavirus may prove deadlier in time. The average seasonal flu strain kills about 0.1% of people. Estimates of the death rate from the outbreak’s epicenter in Wuhan placed it between 1% and 2%; however, this rate could fall with the detection of more mild cases — which are probably going unrecorded and resolving largely on their own.

The death rate is higher for those above the age of 65 and for individuals with pre-existing medical conditions.

10. Everyone I Know Is Freaking Out About the Coronavirus! Should I Panic?

No! Definitely do not panic. It’s important to remain calm, don’t panic and practice social distancing to protect those who are immunocompromised, more vulnerable and high-risk.