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COVID-19 – The Basics

Frankly, the volume of information about COVID-19 (“coronavirus”) coming out daily is overwhelming. Things are changing – and changing quickly. In an effort to stymie the “infodemic” and keep you in-the-know, we’ve aggregated information from leading public health organizations, medical centers and Kinsa’s team of licensed clinicians.

Here are your coronavirus basics (with some myth-busting mixed in).

What is coronavirus?

Read: Why is it sometimes called “COVID-19”? Why is it sometimes called “coronavirus”?

When you hear a reporter using the two terms on the nightly news, you can assume they’re referring to the same thing – a new respiratory illness that can spread from person-to-person. If you’re reading a scientific paper or reading content from a public health organization like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), they’ll almost exclusively refer to the disease as COVID-19. This is because coronaviruses are actually a type of virus characterized by tiny spikes that look like little crowns. You’re probably already well-acquainted with one – the coronavirus that causes many common colds.

COVID-19 is the name of the disease that is caused by a new coronavirus that first appeared in late 2019.

We’ll refer to the illness as COVID-19 here.

What are the symptoms?

Main symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath

Less common symptoms:

  • Loss of smell / taste (this usually precedes any other symptoms)
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Chills

How does it spread?

The primary way the virus spreads is via respiratory droplets when a sick person coughs or sneezes. Droplets from a cough or sneeze can travel up to 6 feet and land in the mouth or nose of a healthy passerby. If that passerby then inhales, the virus can travel to the lungs.

A less common way the virus spreads is via contaminated surfaces. If the virus is living on a surface and a person touches that surface, then touches their eyes, nose or mouth and inhales, the virus can travel to the lungs.

Myth-buster: There is currently no evidence to suggest the virus is spread via food. If you’re worried about swallowing the virus (say, via takeout dinner) and contracting COVID-19 the same way you would a stomach bug, rest easy. The viral structure of the new coronavirus is relatively weak, which means the harsh conditions in your digestive tract will destroy it.

How worried should we be?

This is a big deal. The CDC currently estimates that the fatality rate of COVID-19 is between .25 and 3%. On the low end, that’s 2.5x the fatality rate of the seasonal flu. On the high end, that’s 30x the fatality rate of seasonal flu. The disease is particularly deadly for our elderly (65+) and people with chronic conditions. Because the disease is so new, there is currently no antiviral to mitigate serious symptoms or vaccine to prevent infection.

Here’s the good news: we are not powerless. While much is still unknown, we know that the primary way the virus spreads is person-to-person. With this knowledge, the formula for slowing the spread of the virus becomes much simpler: limit person-to-person interaction.

We’ll go into more detail about additional preventative measures we can collectively take to slow the spread of the virus, but the short answer to this question is:

Set aside worry, know what productive action you can take and take those actions – every day.

What productive, preventative actions can I take?

  • If a “shelter in place” or “stay at home” policy has been issued in your area, take it seriously. Our illness signal suggests that in regions where social distancing measures were put into place early, levels of all febrile illnesses (flu, COVID-19 etc.) decreased rapidly. Each state has begun loosening restrictions in one way or another, but we advise you to still practice caution. When you choose to stay home, you’re protecting the elderly and immunocompromised, unburdening healthcare workers at the frontlines and buying our scientists more time to develop a cure.
  • Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Use warm water and soap and scrub for at least 20-seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Tired of singing Happy Birthday? Fortunately, the Twitter community has compiled a list of more 20-second songs you can whistle, sing or hum here.
  • Another option: multitask. Use hand-washing as an opportunity to take 20 seconds to breathe and de-stress. This global pandemic has been massively disruptive to day-to-day life and the stress is real. Here is a coronavirus sanity guide that we love.
  • Use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. This is not a replacement for good hand-washing. Do this in addition to hand-washing, or if soap and water isn’t available.
  • Prioritize personal space. Get outside where there’s space! When you’re outside your home, maintain at least six feet of personal space.
  • Disinfect. The new coronavirus can live on surfaces for at least 2-3 days but is easily killed with disinfectant. Create a bleach solution by mixing ⅓ cup of bleach with 1 gallon of water (or 4 teaspoons per quart). If you’re lucky enough to have disinfectants on hand, verify that it actually kills coronavirus. Look for an EPA registration number on your disinfectant bottle and type that number into the EPA’s search bar here.
  • Stop touching your face. The virus cannot travel through skin, so it enters your body through your nose, mouth or eyes. Check out these helpful tips for breaking your face-touching habit.
  • When you leave your house, wear a cloth or surgical mask (note: not a fitted N95 mask. These should be reserved for our front line healthcare providers.) This new guidance is designed to limit the chances of spreading the virus if you’re unknowingly carrying it (many people can be asymptomatic). If surgical masks are difficult to find in your area, check out this guide on how to make a face covering in your home.

Any preventative action you take now directly contributes to improving quality of care for the already-ill and, ultimately, saving lives. For every preventative action you take, our San Francisco and Portland public health teams salute you.

  1. “How Coronavirus Spreads.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Mar. 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/transmission.html.
  2. “Coronaviruses.” National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, 26 Mar. 2020, www.nfid.org/infectious-diseases/coronaviruses/.
  3. Harvard Health Publishing. “Coronavirus Resource Center.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/coronavirus-resource-center.
  4. “COVID-19: What We Know so Far about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.” COVID-19: What We Know so Far about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus – UChicago Medicine, www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/prevention-and-screening-articles/wuhan-coronavirus.

Blake Wageman

Blake Wageman, RN, BSN has over 11 years of nursing under her belt, primarily focused on NICU babies and, just as importantly, their worried parents.