Health Care April 16th, 2020

2019 Novel Coronavirus

What do I need to know about the 2019 novel coronavirus?

In this course, you will learn about this virus and the sickness scientists call COVID-19.  What is it, where did it come from, what might it mean for you?

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Let’s learn with Susan, who lives in a busy city.  She is nervous about this novel coronavirus.  She wants to know what to expect and her family’s chances of getting sick or dying.

The coronavirus is a virus that can spread between people.
Scientists think the virus spreads through droplets containing virus particles from spit or coughs, like the flu does.

Susan has a relatively low risk of getting this virus. She works from home, she hasn’t traveled, she washes her hands often and she hasn’t been close to anyone who is sick.

Her partner, Bill, has a slightly higher chance of getting a coronavirus infection.  He commutes and works as a nurse.  Yesterday he treated a patient who had a fever and a cough.

Bill’s clinic takes many precautions, though.  When people come in with a cough, they are given a mask to wear and wait in a separate waiting area to protect others.

When Bill returns home from the clinic, he removes his shoes and outer clothes in the garage, then showers. He does this to limit virus particles coming into the house.

Susan’s daughter Jackie also has a slightly higher risk of infection. She works at a restaurant and likes to go to the store with her friends. One of her friends is now sick.

How can Susan’s family protect themselves? Before there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their city, the family took steps to prepare.

Continue to learn more.

Susan and Bill bought soap and household cleaners to protect their hands and their home from coronavirus. They refilled prescriptions for Susan’s elderly mother so that she could stay safe at home.

Susan prepared for changes in her family's daily routine. Since the schools closed, she helped her kids to plan time for schoolwork at home.

Bill shows his kids how to wash their hands correctly.

Wash your hands after using the bathroom, moving through public areas, blowing your nose or coughing, and before eating or touching your face.

Don’t have soap and water nearby?  Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Antibacterial hand sanitizers are not as effective without a high proportion of alcohol.

  • Your risk of getting the novel coronavirus depends on how close you have been to someone who has it.
  • Keep your risk low by keeping your distance from people you don’t live with.
  • Create a habit of washing your hands often.
  • Avoid touching your face.

Doctors found the “novel coronavirus” in December 2019 when many people in Wuhan, China, became sick with a flu-like illness.  It is novel  because scientists haven’t seen it before.

New viruses are found all the time.  A virus is a type of microscopic parasite that needs living things to survive.  Viruses copy themselves inside of the cells of living organisms.

Coronaviruses are viruses with protein “crowns” around them.  There are many coronaviruses.  Many are found in animals like bats and birds.

Where animals and humans cross paths, an animal virus can sometimes infect a human.  Sometimes, the human can then pass that virus to another human.  COVID-19 appeared this way.

Just like there are different types of flu, there are different types of coronaviruses.  Some cause mild illness while others can be more severe, like the SARS coronavirus.

The 2019 novel coronavirus is somewhat similar to the SARS coronavirus, so scientists have named it SARS coronavirus 2, or “SARS-CoV-2” for short.

  • The novel coronavirus is a virus. It needs living things to make more of itself.
  • It is related to other coronaviruses, such as the SARS coronavirus, but it typically causes less severe illness than SARS but spreads more easily.
  • It likely passed originally from an animal to a person.

Susan hears on the local news that more people in her city are testing positive for this coronavirus. Health experts talk about this as “community spread.”

Community spread means that at least a few people in one area have gotten sick from the virus, but some do not know how they got sick.  It means the virus is spreading person to person.

If community spread of coronavirus is occurring in your area, limit your visits to public places and crowds.  Avoid shaking hands or being very close to anyone outside of your home. 
This is “social distancing.”

What about masks?  Some special types of face masks worn properly can protect doctors and nurses in your community.  They can also contain infected people’s coughs and sneezes.

Wearing a face mask doesn’t fully protect you from the virus - viruses can pass through. But you could have COVID-19 without symptoms, so wearing a mask to cover coughs may protect others.
Wash your hands before putting on or adjusting a mask.

Getting sick is more dangerous for people who have heart, lung or kidney disease.  People with these conditions, and people over age 65, should try to stay home and away from sick people.

What if you get sick, even though you’ve taken precautions? 

Unless you have an underlying chronic disease, you will probably experience minor illness.
Continue to learn more.

Susan’s daughter Jackie has started to feel unwell and has a slightly high temperature. 

Symptoms for coronavirus are fever, coughing, body aches, shortness of breath, and sometimes headache, sore throat or diarrhea.

Jackie decides to self-isolate. She stays home from work. This protects others in case she has the virus. When her Grandma stops by, she stays in her room.

When Jackie starts coughing more, she uses a tissue or does it into her elbow.  People who are sick should wear a face mask if they must leave their house.

Jackie’s coughing and fever suggest coronavirus.  Susan calls their family doctor.

Since Jackie’s symptoms are not severe, the doctor tells her to stay home.  She can take cough medicine.  Properly used gloves and a mask can protect Susan.

Severe symptoms - difficulty breathing, sharp chest pain, shaking and sweating - may suggest pneumonia. Someone with those symptoms should visit an emergency department.

The family cleans the house thoroughly.  Household cleaners that claim to kill the flu virus should similarly work against coronavirus.

Susan’s son is afraid someone is going to take his sister away for “quarantine.”  But, by staying home for 2 weeks, Jackie is already protecting other people while she is sick.

Because his sister is sick, Susan keeps her son home. She does not want him to make other families sick.

If you get sick, it is very unlikely that you will die.  Children have been getting less sick than older people.  People who are over age 80 are the most at risk of life-threatening illness.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, stay home, keep your distance from others and wear a face mask.  If you develop trouble breathing, a cold sweat, stabbing chest pain or intense sleepiness, get emergency care.

Weeks later, Susan hears from government officials that people in her city should stay at home unless they do “essential”  work, or they have needs to take care of.

Bill goes to work to treat patients, but the rest of the family stays home. Susan checks into a grocery delivery service. Their kids use video chat to talk to their friends and grandma. Bill says their friends could be sick without knowing it.

There are no vaccines or cures for coronavirus.  Scientists are working on new potential vaccines and medicines but this may take many months or years.


Being informed is the first step to keeping yourself safe. 

Protect yourself and others by practicing good personal hygiene and distancing yourself from others when sick. 

When outbreaks occur, keep up to date on news and recommendations for staying at home from your local health department.
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Reviewed by
Tara C. Smith, PhD.

Dr. Smith is a Professor of Epidemiology at Kent State. Her research focuses on zoonotic infections transferred between animals and humans.

Reviewed by
Ian Mackay, PhD.

Dr. Mackay works in public health virology. He detects and characterizes viruses that are a threat to the public.

Reviewed by
Harrison Kalodimos, MD.

Dr. Kalodimos is a family doctor practicing primary care in Seattle, Washington.

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