What you need to know about coronavirus and how it spreads

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some cause illness in people and others cause illness in animals. Human coronaviruses are common. They are typically associated with mild illnesses, similar to the common cold.

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COVID-19 is a new disease that has not been previously identified in humans. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people, and more rarely, these can then spread from person to person through close contact.

There have been two other specific coronaviruses that have spread from animals to humans and which have caused severe illness in humans: SARS and MERS.

How worried should I be?

The illness caused by COVID-19 is generally mild, especially for children and young adults. However, it can cause serious illness: an estimated one in five people who catch it needs hospital care, and in severe cases, infection can lead to death.

Older persons and persons with pre-existing medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, cancer or diabetes) appear to develop serious illness more often than others.

According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe ailments might take three to six weeks to rebound. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed, but more than 60,000 already have recovered.

There are also ways to reduce your risk of catching it.

How likely am I to catch it?

The risk depends on where you are and whether there is a COVID-19 outbreak unfolding there. For most people in most places, the risk of becoming infected remains low. On Vancouver Island, for example, there have been eight cases, as of Monday.

Complying with any local restrictions on travel, movement or large gatherings helps to reduce the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19.

In B.C., the government is asking people who have been travelling overseas to self-isolate for 14 days and watch for symptoms. Gatherings and events of more than 250 people have been cancelled.

What symptoms should I look out for?

Common symptoms include fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Some people have developed pneumonia in both lungs.

That said, those who are infected with COVID-19 might have little to no symptoms, and many symptoms are similar to those of a cold or flu, so you might not realize you have COVID-19.

It appears that it could take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear after a person is exposed to the virus.

What should I do if I feel sick? 

If you are sick, the first thing you need to do is stay home, away from others, says provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

People experiencing symptoms such as a fever, dry cough or difficulty breathing are asked to contact their primary-care providers or call HealthLink B.C. at 811 to be assessed. People who require follow-up will be directed to call a testing clinic, where a triage nurse will reassess them to determine if an appointment for testing is needed.

Do I need to get tested? 

Only if you are told to get one by your primary care provider or HealthLink B.C. Those who are symptom-free don’t have to be tested for COVID-19, even if they have been travelling abroad.

Isn’t the flu worse than COVID-19? 

In terms of sheer numbers, influenza has a greater impact than the new coronavirus.

According to the World Health Organization, annual flu epidemics are estimated to result in about three million to five million cases of severe illness. Seasonal flu kills far fewer than one per cent of those infected.

For comparison, there were 142,539 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 5,393 deaths as of Saturday. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is estimated to be between one and four per cent.

Both the flu and COVID-19 cause respiratory disease and spread the same way, via small droplets of fluid from the nose and mouth of someone who is sick. Influenza appears to transmit more efficiently, with people who are not yet sick being major spreaders of the disease.

However, COVID-19 appears to cause more severe disease than seasonal influenza. Because it is new, no one has immunity. That means more people are susceptible to infection. And unlike the flu, there are no vaccines or specific treatments for COVID-19. (However, clinical trials are underway and several vaccines are in development.)

How does the virus spread? 

Coronavirus is transmitted via larger liquid droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. For that reason, the virus is not thought to be airborne — transmitted through particles floating in the air. However, you can become infected if you are in close contact and these droplets enter through the eyes, nose or throat.

It can be spread by touch if a person has used their hands to cover their mouth or nose when they cough. That’s why you should cough or sneeze into your arm, avoid shaking or touching hands, and wash your hands regularly.

You can also catch it by touching an object with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands. Again, wash your hands regularly.

Because it’s a heavier droplet, it only spreads about one metre through coughing or sneezing. It’s not clear how long the virus lasts on surfaces.

It is most likely to be transmitted by infected individuals to people they live with, spend time with in close indoor settings, or by sharing food.

Can you become sick from someone before they show symptoms?

Health officials still are investigating whether the virus can be transmitted to others if someone is not showing symptoms. Experts believe it is possible, but rare.

How can I keep from getting sick?

Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry advises “doing all those things that we need to do at this time of the year to prevent transmissions of infections,” including cleaning hands regularly, covering your mouth with your sleeve, not touching your face and eyes, staying away from others and staying home if you’re sick.

Wash your hands, regularly and thoroughly, using soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand rub. Wash them for at least 20 seconds, and be sure to include your wrist, fingertips and between your fingers.

Practise social distancing, keeping at least one metre (three feet) away from others, especially anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Your hands touch a lot of surfaces and can pick up viruses, which can then be transferred to your eyes, nose or mouth — where they can enter your body and make you sick.

Cover your nose and mouth with your bent elbow or a disposable tissue. Throw out the tissue immediately.

Stay away from COVID-19 hotspots — areas where the virus is spreading widely. There is a higher chance of catching COVID-19 in these areas.

Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and do not share food, drinks or utensils.

Should I wear a mask?

If you are sick, wearing a mask helps prevent you from passing on illnesses to other people.

If you are not sick, it might be less effective to wear a mask in the community.

What is social distancing?

It’s not forever, but provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is asking people to distance themselves from others, at least a metre — about the distance that the novel coronavirus droplets spread through coughing or sneezing can travel.

If you are at a gathering of a few people, consider sitting in every second seat. Avoid hugging, kissing and shaking hands.

“Right now, we need to keep our hands to ourselves, keep our germs to ourselves,” Henry said. “Make it OK within our family groups and within our religious and social groups that we [greet one another] from a distance right now. We look people in the eyes. We smile in the same way that we have before.”

What is self-monitoring?

Self-monitoring means watching your health and the health of your children for symptoms such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

Anyone who self-monitors is asked to avoid crowded public spaces and places where you cannot easily separate yourself from others if you become ill. Individuals who are self-monitoring are allowed to attend and work in school and participate in regular activities.

I’ve been travelling — what should I do?

B.C. has asked anyone who has been out of the country to self-isolate.

Self-isolation means avoiding situations where you could infect other people to help prevent the spread of infections.

Stay at home and limit contact with others for 14 days. That means not going to work or school.

Monitor yourself daily for symptoms such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing for these 14 days. If you develop symptoms, call HealthLink B.C. (811) or speak with your health-care provider to discuss any need for testing and follow-up.

People who have self-isolated can return to normal activities after 14 days if they have not developed any symptoms.

If you’re concerned that you might have been exposed to the virus because you recently travelled to one of the affected areas — such as Washington state, Italy, China, or Iran — call your health-care provider, if you have one, or 811 to speak to a nurse who will help guide you through the process.

Can I still travel?

The federal governments have issued a global travel advisory, telling Canadians to avoid non-essential travel abroad.

Travel could be severely interrupted because many governments are imposing entry, exit and movement restrictions, the Foreign Affairs Department said. Canadians outside the country should consider an early return, it said.

To limit the spread of COVID-19, many countries have put in place travel or border restrictions and other measures such as movement restrictions and quarantines. Airlines have cancelled flights. New restrictions could be imposed with little warning. Your travel plans might be severely disrupted and you might be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected.

Contact your airline or tour operator to determine options for cancelling or postponing your trip.

The Government of Canada is advising that you avoid all travel on cruise ships due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, until further notice.

Cruise passengers include travellers from around the world who might be arriving from areas with known or unknown spread of COVID-19.

The virus can spread quickly on board cruises due to the close contact between passengers. Older people and people with a weakened immune system or underlying medical condition are at a higher risk of developing severe disease.

Should I be stocking up on food?

The Canadian Public Health Agency recommends stocking up on non-perishable food items, so that you do not need to go shopping if you become sick or if there is a larger outbreak.

It is easier on the supply chain if people gradually build up their household stores instead of making large-scale purchases all at once. To do this, you can add a few extra items to your grocery cart every time you shop.

Some good options include easy-to-prepare foods such as dried pasta and sauce, canned soups and canned vegetables and beans. It’s also good to have extra pet food, toilet paper, facial tissue, feminine hygiene products and diapers, as applicable, on hand.

The reason for stocking up on these items is not necessarily because you will need to self-isolate. Having these supplies on hand will ensure you do not need to leave your home at the peak of the outbreak or if you become ill.

Sources: Public Health Agency of Canada, B.C. Centres for Disease Control, Province of B.C., World Health Organization

— With files from Cindy E. Harnett, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press

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