Face masks? Zinc? Gloves? Americans are grasping for ways to brace for what public health experts say is inevitable: an outbreak of the new coronavirus.
Public health experts advise staying calm and following the same precautions recommended for preventing flu or any other respiratory virus. Stick with the basics: Wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes, and stay at home from work or school when you’re sick.
What do I do if I am coughing or have a fever and wonder if it might be the new coronavirus?
Right now the odds are far greater that your cold or fever is caused by influenza or another respiratory disease, says Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minn. He notes that the fewer-than-100 cases in the U.S. compares to some 20 million cases of influenza in the last four to five months.
What to do will depend on the individual circumstances. If you just traveled to Milan or a country where there is a large coronavirus outbreak you may want to seek testing. But if you haven’t traveled anywhere and are in an area with few cases you should see your doctor, get tested for influenza and rest at home until you are better.
How and when should I get tested?
Currently it’s difficult to get tested for the new coronavirus, says Cameron Wolfe, an associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Duke University health system. The only patients getting tested are people who have traveled to countries with large outbreaks and those admitted to the hospital with severe illness and no known cause. That may change as the disease becomes more common and testing becomes more available, he says. Right now the best strategy is to get an influenza test, which is widely available, to rule out other causes of illness.
Public health experts recommend contacting your primary care doctor if you suspect you may have Covid-19. The CDC criteria—used as guidance for physicians—includes having a fever and cough, and being in close contact with someone who has confirmed Covid-19 or a history of travel from an affected country. They also recommend testing for patients requiring hospitalization for a severe lower respiratory illness such as pneumonia with no alternative explanation, such as influenza.
After consulting with the local health department, a decision will be made if there is a need for a test and patients will be guided to the appropriate place to get tested.
If my child or anyone else in my household is coughing or has a fever, do I need to keep them home too? For how long?
Absolutely. Of all times to keep children at home when they are ill—when the new coronavirus is spreading and we’re also in a second wave of influenza—now is the time, says Cameron Wolfe, associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Duke University health system. This is not the time to give your child some Tylenol and send them off to school, he notes. Be prepared with alternative plans to be able to keep them at home. “The younger the child the less capable they are of keeping their own secretions and snot to themselves so parents have to be mindful of that,” says Dr. Wolfe.
Vanessa Raabe, a pediatric and adult infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, says for any illness children should be home until there is no sign of infection, which is when their symptoms have resolved and they are fever-free without any medications for at least 24 hours.
Are there any precautions or steps different in coronavirus prevention than in influenza prevention? What about treatment?
No. Both illnesses are infectious respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses but spread the same way, says Dr. Raabe. They are transmitted through droplets from a sick person sneezing or coughing or talking within 2 meters or 6 feet. If such a droplet enters your eyes, mouth or nose, you could become infected.
There is some concern that the new coronavirus can also be transmitted by tiny fine droplets that remain suspended in the area after an ill person leaves, but Dr. Raabe says that it’s not believed to be the main way it’s transmitted and it’s more of a worry in the health care setting.
Antibiotics don’t work for either virus. The symptoms of both viruses can be treated by over-the-counter medications like Advil or Tylenol. There are no antivirals or vaccines currently for the new coronavirus. The flu has both a vaccine and antivirals, which can lessen the duration.