what is coronavirus

Last updated: August 13, 2020

Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) which causes the disease COVID-19 is all over the media. While a new virus strain spreading throughout the world is alarming, it’s important to keep the facts straight and understand our risk as best we can. The most important things to know are that wearing a mask, washing your hands properly, and social distancing are key to slowing the spread of disease. Learn more about the virus and prevention measures below, and always check with your local government or public health agency to find out how COVID-19 may be affecting your community.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that causes symptoms such as:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches or chills
  • Headache
  • Sudden loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Runny nose and/or congestion
  • Fatigue

The illness can range from mild to severe, with some cases resulting in death. It is currently believed that symptoms can appear anywhere from 2 to 14 days after exposure. However, recent data shows that a significant number of infected people can be asymptomatic (meaning they do not develop any symptoms). These people can still spread the virus to others, as can those whose symptoms have not shown up yet (pre-symptomatic).

If you feel sick, stay home. If you feel like you need medical attention, call your health care provider first. This is important as it will help stop the spread of infection. However, if you feel your symptoms are severe or if you have any of the following emergency warning signs, seek medical attention immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest
  • Confusion, or are difficult to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

Who is at risk?

Everyone is at risk of getting COVID-19. Severe complications from the virus can happen in anyone, but certain groups are at higher risk.

Older adults (e.g., over age 60) and those with compromised immune systems or chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and lung disease are most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19.

How does it spread?

The virus appears to spread via close contact (within about six feet) with an infected person. It spreads via contact with droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth that are released when they cough, sneeze, talk, sing, shout, or exhale. Studies are showing that the virus may be more likely to spread via prolonged interactions, particularly indoors. Frequently touched surfaces may also be contaminated. Wear a mask, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands to try to prevent the spread of infection.

Does social distancing really make a difference? 

Yes. You should be practicing social distancing right now—even if you feel completely healthy and you don’t think you know anyone who has COVID-19. Keeping your distance—by staying home as much as you can and aiming for at least six feet between you and others when possible—will lessen the burden on our healthcare system and ultimately reduce the number of deaths related to COVID-19.

Should I wear a mask in public?

Yes. In recent studies, mask wearing has been shown to significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19. Wear a double-layered cloth mask any time you will be around others who are not part of your household—especially if you are somewhere where it’s hard to maintain social distancing. The CDC still asks that we reserve medical-grade masks for frontline healthcare workers. The CDC does not recommend the use of face shields or masks with valves or vents, as they are likely to be less effective.

What to do if you are sick

  • hand washing | what is coronavirusStay home and avoid contact with others as much as possible. Try to stay in one room and use a separate bathroom from the people you live with, if one is available. Don’t leave the house except to get medical attention.
  • Avoid sharing things like cups, dishes, utensils, etc. with others. Wash these items thoroughly with soap and water after use.
  • If you feel you need medical attention, call your health care provider first and describe your symptoms, especially if you may have been in contact with someone who has or may have COVID-19. This helps the health care facility prepare and can reduce the spread of disease.
  • Wash your hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds, with soap and running water, and dry them thoroughly. If you can’t wash your hands, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol or higher. Rub your hands all over with the sanitizer until they are dry.
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue and throw it away immediately in a lined trash can, then wash your hands. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow, then wash your hands.

How to get tested

Check your state or local health department website to find testing locations in your area. If possible, call ahead to arrange for your test and let them know of any symptoms you are having or if you suspect you were in contact with someone who has COVID-19. Find more information on testing and types of tests here. Wear a mask and avoid close contact with anyone (including those you live with) if you suspect you may have COVID-19.

Where can I get the most current updates? Article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March 18). Are you at higher risk for severe illness? Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 16). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) [entire website]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March 4). How it spreads. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/transmission.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March 16). Symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, February 25). What to do if you are sick with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/steps-when-sick.html

Grady, D. (2020, February 29). How does the coronavirus compare with the flu? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/health/coronavirus-flu.html

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses

Rapoza, K. (2020, February 25). Coronavirus update: Italy mortality rate similar to China’s. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2020/02/25/coronavirus-update-italy-mortality-rate-similar-to-chinas/#43d6b3d26c43

Young, L. (2020, February 26). Canada warns of evolving risk as new COVID-19 case linked to Iran appears in Canada. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/6598256/canada-covid-19-risk/