What is coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, known as SARS-CoV-2, is the virus strain identified in January that causes COVID-19, coronavirus disease, and is spreading from person to person. While the virus has the potential to cause severe illness and pneumonia in some people, about 80% of cases are relatively mild.

How does this new coronavirus spread?

COVID-19 spreads main mode of spreading is respiratory droplets produced when an infected person exhales, coughs or sneezes, according to the World Health Organization. 

Droplets can be inhaled or they can land on surfaces which are then touched by someone who later touches their own mouth, nose or eyes. A new study from researchers affiliated with the National Institutes of Health found the coronavirus can live on plastic and stainless steel surface for as long as 72 hours and on more porous surfaces like cardboard for 24 hours.

How severe is COVID-19?

Most coronavirus illnesses are mild with fever and cough. The vast majority of people with a SARS-CoV-2 infection don’t require hospital care. A much smaller percentage of people get severely ill with respiratory problems like pneumonia. Elderly people and people with underlying medical conditions are at the highest risk.

Globally, 3.4% of reported COVID-19 patients had died as of March 3, according to the WHO. However, with many mild cases not reported, the percentage may be lower.

What are the symptoms?

About 99% of people who have the virus will have symptoms. On average, symptoms appear five to six days after infection, but may appear as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure to the virus.

According to a WHO study of cases in China, nearly 90% of patients will present with a fever.  Most patients infected will suffer from a dry cough.  About two in five report feeling fatigued, and nearly one in five will suffer difficulty breathing.

Shortness of breath is one of the signs of a potentially more serious infection.  Other signs include a fever above 100.4 degrees, lethargy, and dehydration.  According to Johns Hopkins University, patients exhibitng those symptoms should contact a health care provider.

If you show early signs of illness

Dr. Tanny Davenport, a family medicine specialist affiliated with Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital in Yakima, says people with minor symptoms of the virus, notably fever and cough, should stay home and self-monitor.

Those in high-risk populations, or whose symptoms worsen, should call their primary care provider.

Virginia Mason Memorial has established a call center staffed with specialists capable of listening to symptoms and triaging cases over the phone, Davenport said.  That number is 509-249-5097.

If you have symptoms but don’t know if you were exposed, don’t head straight to the emergency room or urgent care, where you might infect others. Call your doctor about whether, when and where you should be evaluated.

Is there any treatment?

No medications are specifically approved for COVID-19. For now, doctors are treating symptoms with anti-fever drugs. Some doctors are trying antiviral drugs developed for HIV or Ebola.

Most people with mild coronavirus illness will recover on their own by drinking plenty of fluids, resting, and taking pain and fever medications. However, some patients develop pneumonia and require medical care or hospitalization.

How can I avoid catching the virus?

Steps you can take to prevent the flu and the common cold will also help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water. If that’s not available, use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home while you are sick and avoid close contact with others.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing.

Information from: World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Instutes of Health, Johns Hopkins Univesity, Yakima Health District, Seattle & King County Public Health, Scientific American