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Last updated April 2, 2020. 3 minute read

How can I help prevent and prepare for the novel coronavirus?

rachel-kwon-md Written by Dr. Rachel Kwon, MD
Reviewed by Dr. Tzvi Doron, DO

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is an illness similar to the flu. It was first seen in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. It is caused by a novel (new) coronavirus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause contagious illnesses that affect the respiratory system, like the common cold. SARS-CoV-2 causes mild symptoms (cough, fever, trouble breathing) in 80% of patients who get it, according to a report of over 70,000 people with COVID-19 in China (Wu, 2020). 

For some people who get COVID-19 (usually those over 70 years old or have other health problems or both), the symptoms are more severe, and they need to go to the hospital and may even need to be put on a breathing machine.

How to prevent COVID-19

If you haven’t recently (within the past 14 days) traveled to any of the areas identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as at-risk for coronavirus transmission or had close contact with anyone who for sure has COVID-19, the chances that you have COVID-19 are low. However, there are some best practices you can follow to help lower the risk of spreading any respiratory infection like the common cold or flu (most of these are just common courtesy!). The CDC recommends the following:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. To help prevent the spread of the disease, practice social distancing, which involves staying at least six feet away from everybody.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If you’re sick, stay home.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, then throw the tissue away and wash your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using regular household cleaning spray or cleaning wipe.
  • If you don’t have any symptoms, the CDC does not recommend wearing a facemask for protection. Only people who have symptoms of COVID-19 and healthcare workers should wear facemasks.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (one tip is to wash for the duration of singing the song “Happy Birthday” twice), especially after:
    • Using the bathroom
    • Before eating
    • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • If you’re not near a sink with soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can be used. The exception is if your hands are visibly dirty: In that case, always wash with soap and water.

Also, remember that unless you have any of the risk factors mentioned above (traveling to a high-risk area or having close contact with someone who has COVID-19), you are more likely to catch the common cold or flu than COVID-19. Everybody who is healthy, including kids over six months of age and almost everybody else (there are some rare exceptions), should get a flu shot every year to protect against the flu. There isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19 yet.

How to prepare for COVID-19

Although most people who get COVID-19 have mild symptoms that go away on their own, it does seem to spread fairly easily. In case COVID-19 makes it to your community, there are still things you can do to help limit the spread of the disease and best help people who need it. The CDC recommends the following for getting your household ready for a potential COVID-19 outbreak:

  • Create a plan of action for your household: Talk to people involved and what they might need if an outbreak happens, plan for ways to help people who most need it, including older people and people who are living with chronic illnesses, talk to your neighbors about emergency plans, identify local organizations that might be helpful, and create a list of emergency contacts.
  • Remind everyone of good personal health habits: It can’t be said enough: Wash your hands and cover your coughs and sneezes! Also, if you can, pick a room in your home that could be used to keep sick members away from healthy members of your family.
  • Be prepared if your child’s school or daycare is temporarily dismissed: Find out about emergency plans at your child’s school and plan accordingly.
  • Plan for potential changes where you work: Find out about your employer’s emergency plan. Employers should encourage sick employees to stay home, and if employees develop symptoms on the job, they should go home immediately.