Coronavirus Outbreak: What to Know and How to Prevent It

Common coronavirus outbreak questions answered

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A new coronavirus first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019 has since infected more 124,000 people worldwide, including more than 1,100 in the United States.

COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, has killed scores, quarantined millions and wreaked havoc on the world's economy. The World Health Organization officially declared the crisis a pandemic on March 11.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief, called for countries to "detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response." 

President Donald Trump signed a $8.3 billion emergency measure on March 5 to tackle the outbreak. The measure will provide federal public health care agencies money for vaccines, testing and potential treatments. The bill also set aside $300 million to deliver drugs to those who need it.

Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the coronavirus task force, said testing for the virus would be covered by private and government health insurance. Government health care plans like Medicare, Medicaid and Affordable Care Act plans cover the tests, as well as major insurers. Those with employer-provided health insurance should check their plan co-pays and deductibles may apply.

And policymakers are considering other steps to mitigate the economic damage.

For the latest information, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, as well as the World Health Organization's site. States and city governments are also sharing phone numbers for local hotlines.

What Are Coronavirus Symptoms?

Based on the reported cases of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has narrowed the symptoms to fever, cough and shortness of breath. Symptoms of the virus appear 2-14 days after exposure. The average incubation time, though, is five days and 97.5% of people infected with the virus will show symptoms within 12 days, according to a new study.

How is the Coronavirus Spread?

Contagion can vary case by case. Some viruses are highly contagious and spread very easily, like the measles. There are other viruses that do not spread as easily.

The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community in affected areas, according to the CDC.

Coronavirus Spreading:

  • Person to Person: People who are in close contact (within 6 feet) of each other. When the infected person coughs or sneezes, they release respiratory droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of the people nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
  • Asymptomatic: Thus far people are thought to be contagious when they are the sickest (most symptomatic). It is possible to spread before symptoms occur. There have been reports of this occurring with the coronavirus, but it is not the main way the virus is spread.
  • Infected Surfaces and Objects: A person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose and eyes. This is not the main way the virus is spread, according to the CDC.
  • Community Spread: People have been infected with the virus in the area, including people who are not sure how or where they became infected.

No Evidence That It Spreads From Food or Packages:

It is always important to wash your hands with soap and water for general food safety. The CDC says, "In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures." The same holds for imported goods.

Think You Have the Coronavirus?

Stay at Home Unless Medical Care Is Needed: Those with a mild form of the virus are able to isolate at home during the illness. They should restrict all outdoor activities except for medical care. This includes avoiding public areas or going to work or school. Refrain from using public transportation, ride-sharing services or taxis, the CDC says.


  • People: Stay away from other people in the home as much as possible. Stay in a specific room and if available, a separate bathroom.
  • Animals: Restrict contact with all other pets and animals while you have the virus. There have not been confirmed reports of pets or animals becoming sick with the coronavirus, but it is still recommended that people with COVID-19 limit contact with other animals until more information is known of the virus. If caring for a pet, wash your hands before and after all interactions and wear a facemask, while you have the virus.

Call Ahead Before Visiting a Doctor: If you have a medical appointment, call the healthcare provider and tell them that you have or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. This will help the health care provider’s office take steps to keep other people from getting infected or exposed.  

Doctors and insurers stress that patients potentially exposed to the coronavirus should not avoid getting tested because of the concerns of costs.

As the number of coronavirus cases rise, so do concerns from travelers.

How to Prevent Spreading the Coronavirus If You're Infected

Wear a Mask: If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, you should wear a facemask when you are around other people and before you enter a healthcare provider’s office. If you are not able to wear a facemask, then people should not stay in the same room as you or they should wear a facemask if they enter the room.  

Cover Your Coughs and Sneezes: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw used tissues in a lined trash can. Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (the length of the "Happy Birthday" song). If soap and water are not available, clean hands with an alcohol-based (at least 60% alcohol) hand sanitizer.

Soap and water are the best options if hands are visibly dry. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

Avoid sharing personal and household items.

According to the CDC’s standard precautions, gloves should be worn when in contact with contagious material including blood, bodily fluids, mucous membrane, non-intact skin or when handling contaminated equipment.

While you have the coronavirus, avoid sharing drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels or bedding with other people in your home. After using these items, they should be washed thoroughly with soap and water.

Clean all surfaces every day: Surfaces like counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathrooms fixture, toilets, phone keyboards, tablets and bedside tables should be cleaned daily and thoroughly with a household cleaning spray or wipe. Clean any surfaces with bodily fluids like blood or stool.

Monitor symptoms: Seek medical care if the illness is worsening. Notify your health care provider that you are being evaluated for the coronavirus and use a facemask before entering the facility. This will prevent the virus from spreading to others in the office or waiting room. People who are actively monitored or are self-monitoring should follow instructions provided by health professionals.

The only thing spreading faster than the panic regarding COVID-19 virus may be the myths surrounding it, including how it spreads and what can be done to prevent from getting it. NBC New York’s Rana Novini reports.

When Is It OK to Leave Isolation?

How long someone is sick with COVID-19 can vary so decisions on when to release someone from isolation are made on a case-by-case basis, according to the CDC. Still, these requirements must be met: the person is fever-free without having taken medicine and no longer shows other symptoms like a cough. The person should also have tested negative at least twice, 24 hours apart.

How to Prepare for the Coronavirus

There is no vaccine yet to prevent the coronavirus. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid exposure. The CDC has standard preventative actions to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases:

  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue. Throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently used items and surfaces.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. If soap is not available, use hand sanitizer that contains 60% alcohol.
  • The CDC does not recommend that people who aren't sick wear a facemask. Facemasks should be used by people who have COVID-19, health care workers and others who come into contact with those who are infected.

When and How to Wear Gloves: According to the CDC’s standard precautions, gloves should be worn when in contact with contagious material including blood, bodily fluids, mucous membrane, non-intact skin or when handling contaminated equipment.

COVID-19, is not spread from skin to skin contact. The virus is spread between people who are in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The droplets can land in the mouth or nose of people who are nearby and inhaled into the lungs.

Hand hygiene is the best way to prevent the spreading of COVID-19. Hand hygiene is the washing of hands under warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available use hand sanitizer.

Gloves are not a substitute for hand hygiene. If gloves are required to complete a task, wash hands prior to donning gloves and after removing gloves. Carefully remove gloves. Follow the CDC’s guideline on proper disposal of gloves.  

With flu season well upon us, and concerns over the coronavirus growing, NBC 5’s Lauren Petty visited Northwestern Hospital and talked to Dr. Igor Koralnik. Koralnik shows us the right way to get your hands clean in 60 seconds.

Will the COVID-19 Outbreak End in Warm Weather?

The CDC says it is unknown whether the virus' spread will stop during warmer months. While the common cold and flu "spread more during cold weather months" that doesn't mean people can't get sick with those viruses during other months. "There is much more to learn about the transmissibility, severity, and other features associated with COVID-19 and investigations are ongoing," the CDC says.

Danielle Abreu and other staff contributed to this report.

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