Can drugs like Tamiflu protect patients from getting sick from COVID-19?
No. Tamiflu is designed to fit into a molecule in the influenza virus, which doesn’t appear to be part of COVID-19. However, there are other antiviral medications that may be helpful. We’re still learning more about whether these drugs, like Kaletra (an antiretroviral for HIV patients), will prevent people from getting sick entirely or just help people recover faster. Still, there’s a lot of hope in some of the early data we’re seeing. There are also other antivirals being evaluated at the center of the outbreak in Wuhan.
What should I do if I think I am infected with COVID-19?
If you think you may have COVID-19, reach out to your doctor right away. If you’re going to your doctor’s office or an emergency room, call ahead so someone can meet you outside to give you a face mask to help limit the spread of any germs. In the meantime, stay away from other people. If you live with others, choose a room or place in your home where you can be separated from the others. Don’t share utensils or cups. Have someone wipe down bathroom surfaces with disinfectant regularly, keep their hands clean, and try to keep the windows open for air circulation. Don’t forget to cover your coughs and sneezes.
Can I get tested for COVID-19 if I’m worried I’ve been exposed?
Only if you are sick. The test to diagnose COVID-19 isn’t useful unless you are sick and it’s still more limited than any of us want it to be. Make sure you tell your doctor about any risks for COVID you may have so they can get you a test if you need it.
It’s also worth mentioning that people shouldn’t be worried if they go to their doctor’s office and get tested for respiratory viruses and the results say they have a coronavirus. That’s because coronavirus is the name for a whole group of viruses, including things like the common cold. Most doctors’ offices can test for normal, everyday coronaviruses. If you see test results that say you have one, you shouldn’t worry. If you are being tested for COVID-19, your doctor will be very, very specific and will walk you through any results that come back.
Is COVID-19 airborne?
In infection control, we draw a line between things that are transmitted by traveling in the air briefly in respiratory droplets and things that are actually aerosolized and float around for a while. Think of droplets as small bits of fluid that you can feel and see when someone sneezes. You sneeze or cough and these droplets get on surfaces and then you touch them and get them on your hands, or they can fly right into your mouth or nose or eyes. That’s how most coronaviruses are transmitted and that’s how we think this one is too.
Aerosols are different. Think of hairspray after you use it in the bathroom. When you go back to the bathroom later, you may still be able to smell it because it’s lingering in the air. Obviously, we’re learning a lot about this virus, but most coronaviruses aren’t airborne that way. Generally speaking, there may be times when some of these droplets or particles are airborne, but it’s limited.
Someone on my plane was coughing next to me. Should I worry I will get COVID-19?
If you have contact with someone who is known to have a confirmed case of COVID, you will be asked to stay home and watch yourself for symptoms. That is very different than if you have contact with someone who had contact with someone who either does or may have COVID-19.
Contacts of contacts—or people that are two people removed from an actual case or a possible case—o not need to take any precautions at this time. You have to wait and find out if the person you had contact with develops any symptoms. In the unlikely chance someone on your flight did have COVID-19, the local health department in your community will find you. If they don’t, then you probably weren’t exposed.
What is “community-based transmission” and why is it important?
Public health officials have been talking a lot about “community-based transmission” of COVID-19 and it’s not always clear how this is different from a person who picked up COVID while traveling abroad. Because of the travel alerts and the public health screening at airports, many people who traveled to a country with COVID risk are being asked to stay home and avoid contact with other people. When these people get sick, they have very few contacts and public health officials can track them down and ask them to continue to stay home. This is a containment approach to reducing spread of a new virus and it means that we can see the whole chain of transmission, tracking it from person to person.
When we find cases of COVID-19 that aren’t part of a known transmission chain, these patients must have picked up COVID from somewhere. So, we have to assume there are invisible chains of transmission that could include lots and lots of missed cases. Basically, it tells us that our attempts to contain the virus have failed and, especially with COVID-19, it can be really difficult to find these invisible cases and stop the spread. Epidemiologists believe that each community-based case represents a bunch of other invisible cases and, often, this spurs widespread testing of everyone who has cough or cold symptoms in the area. This usually leads to finding a lot more cases in the subsequent weeks.
What is “social distancing” and should I be doing it?
Social distancing is one of a number of “non-pharmacologic interventions” that can be used to slow spread of infections. This specifically refers to different ways of keeping people separated. Increasing the distance between desks at school or standing farther away from the next person in line at the grocery store are both social distancing, as is working from home instead of an office and choosing to elbow bump or wave instead of shake hands. Canceling group gatherings and avoiding crowded public places are also crucial forms of distancing. Social distancing is a way we can all work together to spread ourselves out from other people and keep ourselves from spreading infection.
We shouldn't be staying at home or distancing because we're scared. The individual risk to any one of us is low. However, we should be distancing because we need to protect those of us who are at a higher risk. The speed at which this disease spreads throughout our community makes a big difference in terms of how many people are sick at the same time. If many people are sick at once, this could easily overwhelm our hospital system, and we may not have enough beds for all the patients that need care.
The only way we can prevent this from happening is by taking actions to stop spread of the disease. These actions that keep us at home and away from other people will protect the most vulnerable and keep our hospitals from becoming overcrowded should these people need more serious medical interventions.
You’ll have to make your own personal risk assessment about things like using public transportation, going out to dinner, getting together with your friends and even attending religious services. Some people (like health care providers) will need to go to work even in the middle of a widespread outbreak and others will need to use public transportation and go to the grocery store no matter what. However, we can each do our part and stay home when we can to make it safer for everyone.
What if someone I live with becomes sick with COVID-19?
If you are living with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and is being quarantined, you need to stay separate from that person as much as possible. Additionally, be very careful about maintaining good hand washing and cleaning of high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and countertops. When you do need to be in the same room as the individual, wear a mask.
What does quarantine mean for COVID-19? When should I consider quarantining myself?
We use the word quarantine in a really specific setting. Normally, your physician or the public health department is going to be the ones recommending the practice of quarantine. If you or a family member gets sick with COVID-19, you could find yourself in a mandatory 14-day (or longer) quarantine, and you won’t be allowed to leave your home, even to run errands. You would stay in the same place for the entire duration of the quarantine period.
Do I need to stock up on groceries and medication? Could we be locked down like in China?
It’s highly unlikely that the U.S. government would impose extreme movement restrictions unless absolutely necessary. For communities experiencing bad outbreaks, they will likely ask people to stay home and avoid public spaces for a while. These strategies can really help slow the spread of infection so that everyone doesn’t get sick at the same time. Following these recommendations in any way you can will help protect the most vulnerable among us.
If you or a family member gets sick and has to be quarantined, it’s important to be ready to do your part by staying home. In this situation, you probably need to have basic supplies on hand in the way of non-perishable foods, prescription medications and comfort items to help keep you sane while you ride it out—as you would during a natural disaster. However, COVID doesn’t threaten our water supply or electricity so hand-crank radios and pallets of water might be a bit overkill for this situation. Instead, maybe it’s time to choose a few puzzles and catch up on your favorite binge watching. Having a bunch of enjoyable things to do if you have to stay home for a while can go a long way toward making the entire situation more bearable.
How should I be talking to my children about COVID-19?
With all of the event cancelations and school closures, it’s important we discuss what is happening with school-aged children who will likely be disappointed or scared by what they are hearing. The most important thing to let your children know is that they are going to be fine throughout this, and there are a lot of grownups working hard to help keep everybody safe. At the same time, we need our kids to also help keep others, including their parents and their grandparents, safe. We need their help with social distancing, washing their hands and covering their coughs.
—Article first appeared on the UChicago Medicine website.