By now, you are no doubt aware of the new illness that is causing cancellation of school and disrupting travel: COVID-19, a respiratory disease that results from a form of coronavirus. The situation is evolving rapidly and there is much that scientists and doctors do not yet know about COVID-19. Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians want you to have the facts that are known, so you can best protect yourself and your family.
Here are some key facts on COVID-19:
- COVID-19 is a serious situation that everyone should pay attention to; however, there is also no reason to panic.
- There have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in multiple countries and several U.S. states, including Texas. There are several confirmed cases in North Texas. The number of confirmed cases will continue to increase.
- Not everyone who gets COVID-19 will experience any symptoms. For those that do, most experience mild symptoms.
- Symptoms include cough, fever and shortness of breath.
- If you develop cough or fever, call your health care provider and follow their guidance.
- If you experience shortness of breath, call 911 immediately.
- If you begin to feel sick, stay home. Do not go to work or out in public.
- There is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19.
- To protect yourself and others, practice good hygiene:
- Wash your hands with soap and water frequently
- Use hand sanitizer with 60% or greater alcohol content when handwashing is not practical
- Cover your face when you sneeze or cough
- Avoid touching your face
- Avoid shaking hands and hugging
- Practice social distancing by avoiding public places as much as possible and maintain a distance of at least six feet from others.
What is Coronavirus?
Coronavirus is actually a family of several viruses, many of which have been around for years. For example, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which was a serious respiratory disease in Asia in 2003, is a type of coronavirus. The coronavirus that is currently causing concern across the globe is officially named SARS-CoV-2. The disease that it causes is known as “coronavirus disease 2019” or COVID-19.
Coronaviruses are known to be found in a number of different animals, including bats, camels, cattle and cats. This new coronavirus is believed to have originated in bats, possibly jumping to another animal species before the first human infection. The virus has the ability to be transmitted from animals to other animal species, animals to humans and humans to humans. The first outbreak of COVID-19 was in China and cases have now been reported across the globe, including in the Unites States. Texas reported its first cases in a Houston suburb the first week of March. A presumptive case of COVID-19 was reported in Collin County, the first in North Texas, the second week of March.
COVID-19 can lead to death. The World Health Organization currently estimates the death rate to be 3.4%, but experts agree that number may be high. In some countries, including the Unites States, little testing has been done so far. Therefore, the death rate could be lower since many people who likely have or have had the virus have not been tested.
COVID-19 meets the definition of a global pandemic: it is present on every continent, there is “community spread,” meaning the source of infection is sometimes unknown and people have died as a result of the disease. For perspective, the flu also meets the definition of a pandemic, causing thousands of deaths each year.
COVID-19 spreads through the respiratory droplets that are emitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus can live on a surface for a few days, so a person can contract it by touching a contaminated surface, such as a doorknob.
It is currently thought that most people who get COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms and some may not experience any at all. It is estimated that 15-20% of people who get COVID-19 will have severe complications.
When COVID-19 does produce symptoms, those are presently known to include:
- Shortness of breath
Of course, fever and cough can also be symptoms of a variety of other illnesses, such as influenza and the common cold. “If you start coughing or feeling bad, it is statistically much more likely that you have a common upper respiratory infection or the flu than coronavirus,” says Dr. Lynne Tilkin, a primary care physician. “Nonetheless, it is wise to be prudent. If you begin to experience any of these symptoms, or if you have been in contact with anyone who is known to have COVID-19, here is what you should do:
- Call your health care provider’s office and tell them about your symptoms. They will advise you on whether you should come into the office or go somewhere else to be evaluated.
- Stay home and avoid contact with others
- Drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest and take acetaminophen for fever
- If you experience shortness of breath, call 911 right away.”
How to Protect Yourself
There are several things people can do to lessen their chances of getting COVID-19 – and they are the same things we should do to reduce risk of flu and the common cold.
- Wash your hands frequently. Frequent handwashing is the best way to reduce the spread of germs. Here is the CDC’s advice on best handwashing practice:
- “Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.”
- Use hand sanitizer. Washing your hands with soap and water is always preferable, but it is good to keep hand sanitizer around for when handwashing is not practical. Hand sanitizer should have at least 60% alcohol content to be effective.
- Avoid touching your face. Our hands are exposed to countless germs a day, every time we touch a door handle, a grocery cart, money, etc. When we put our hands to our nose or mouth, or rub our eyes, we are providing the pathway for those germs to enter our bodies and possibly make us sick. So, stop touching your face!
- Protect others by covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. And, if you are feeling sick, stay home from work or school and avoid contact with others so you don’t spread germs.
- Follow U.S. government travel advisories. Avoid international travel altogether and do not travel domestically unless necessary.
- Avoid large crowds and public spaces as much as possible. Follow state and local guidelines on activity and event restrictions.
- Maintain a distance of six feet from others.
- Wipe down surfaces that are frequently touched, using an anti-bacterial cleaner.
- Wear facemasks. A healthy person should not wear a facemask. A facemask will not prevent someone from getting sick because they are ineffective unless properly fitted. People who are buying them are simply reducing the available supply for health care providers, those who need them most. For people who are already sick, it may be helpful for them to wear a facemask to prevent the spread of germs
- Avoid certain neighborhoods or businesses. The COVID-19 illness can affect anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. Just because the first outbreak of the disease was in China does not mean that Asian communities or businesses in the United States are somehow more at risk than any other neighborhood or business.
Senior citizens should especially take extra precautions, including staying home as much as possible and avoiding public places and crowds.
If a patient is experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, a health care provider will likely attempt to rule out other causes first. This could include a flu test, the results of which are available in minutes.
If COVID-19 is suspected, a test will need to be conducted. The CDC has developed a diagnostic test for coronavirus and there are now several labs in Texas with the ability to conduct these tests, including in Dallas and Tarrant Counties. The test consists of an oral and nasal swab, similar to a flu or strep test. Testing has been slow to get off the ground in the United States, but the federal government says testing capacity is now ramping up.
It is important to note that the virus may be present and go undetected in its early stages. Therefore, people who may have been exposed to the virus – from travel, for instance – may need to undergo more than one round of testing.
If someone tests positive for COVID-19, CDC’s current guidance is that they remain quarantined, either in a hospital or at home, depending on the severity of their condition. CDC says the quarantine should only be lifted once all symptoms are gone, including cough, and the patient is fever free without the use of medication. Additionally, two tests – done at least 24 hours apart – must be negative for the virus. For someone who has been exposed to coronavirus but is not showing symptoms, they should self-quarantine for 14 days, as that is the known incubation period for this type of virus.
At this time, there is a not a vaccine for COVID-19. Scientists are working on one, but most experts believe it will be at least a year before a vaccine is available.
Be Vigilant, but Don’t Panic
Given the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to stay abreast of the latest developments. Listen to guidance from local government on the best way to protect yourself.
Remember that one of the reasons the threat posed by COVID-19 is so serious is that there is not yet a vaccine for this disease. Contrast that to the flu, which despite there being a widely-available vaccine, still caused between 36,000 – 61,000 U.S. deaths in 2018-2019, according to the CDC. While COVID-19 should be taken very seriously, more people need to also take the flu seriously and get a flu vaccine each year to better protect themselves.
“It’s important to be aware of the dangers posed by COVID-19 and take some precautions,” says Dr. Tilkin. “If you’re feeling ill, definitely contact your health care provider right away. But the average person also should not panic – we all just need to use common sense.”
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