In December 2019, an outbreak of infections caused by a new coronavirus was identified and quickly made headlines across the world. The outbreak first started in Wuhan, China, but cases of the infection (now named COVID-19) have been identified in a growing number of other international locations, including the United States.

Coronaviruses are part of a family of viruses which are an extremely common cause of colds and other upper respiratory infections. You may be thinking – am I at risk for this new infection? What should I do? We’ve got you covered.

Can I get COVID-19?
“Currently, the actual number of COVID-19 infections here in the United States is relatively low. There are some precautions we can all take to keep ourselves healthy,” says Jerry Zuckerman, M.D., vice president of Infection Prevention & Control at Hackensack Meridian Health.

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How does COVID-19 spread?
“This virus is very new so it is still unclear just how easily it spreads from person to person,” notes Dr. Zuckerman. Current understanding about how the virus that causes the COVID-19 infection spreads is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses.

Person-to-person spread occurs:

Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet)
Via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes
When these droplets land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or are inhaled into the lungs
Spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects

It may be possible that a person can become infected with COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the new coronavirus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

What can you do to avoid getting sick?
The same precautions you take to avoid the flu will also help prevent the spread of this new virus.

Here are five steps you can take to protect yourself and others from viruses and help stop the spread of germs:

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Stay home when you are sick.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm.
Clean your hands. Frequent washing helps protect you and others from germs. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread this way.
The United States government is also advising American travelers to avoid travel to China and South Korea due to the public health threat there.

How is COVID-19 different than the flu and other viral infections?
COVID-19 causes flu-like symptoms including fever, cough and breathing difficulty. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which are thought to cause up to 30% of common cold cases. Certain strains like SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 can cause more serious illness.

What should you do if you think you may be at risk?
If you develop a fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, such as cough or shortness of breath, within 14 days after travel from China, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Iran you should call ahead to a health care professional and mention your recent travel or close contact. This will help your providers take steps to avoid the spread of potential germs.

Data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control has shown that while a vast majority of the reported cases have been mild, elderly and adults with underlying chronic diseases may be at the greatest risk.

Can I travel outside of the country?

Here are travel precautions and guidelines the United States government has issued for countries affected by COVID-19.

Warning Level 3

CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to the following destinations:

South Korea
Alert Level 2

These destinations are experiencing sustained community transmission of respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The virus can spread from person to person. Older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel.

Watch Level 1

CDC does not recommend canceling or postponing travel to the following destinations. Travelers should practice usual precautions.

Hong Kong

The CDC says other destinations with risk of community spread include Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Community spread means people have been infected with the virus, including some who are not sure how or where they became sick.

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

Chinese Journal of Epidemiology