Health

What to Do If You Think You Have Coronavirus

Don't expect to pull up to your nearest healthcare facility and simply get a test.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
March 3, 2020, 5:57pm
What to do if you think you have coronavirus

While the spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19, appears to be slowing down in China, where it originated just a few months ago, the virus is really just getting started in the United States. As of this writing, health authorities have confirmed 96 cases and six fatalities nationwide, and the case number is expected to rise as testing becomes more readily available.

The best advice for preventing the virus remains staying home if you’re sick, and proper, frequent hand washing. As in: Don’t eat anything or touch your little face without first washing your hands with warm water and soap, and drying them all the way off with a clean paper towel. and staying home if you’re sick. But if you’ve been coughing since Thursday, and the little What if I have coronavirus? voice inside your head is getting louder, health experts and the CDC have advice that should not only help you remain calm, but get tested and treated in a way that poses minimal risk to other people.

(We feel compelled to remind you that we are not doctors, and while this info will hopefully be helpful, it doesn’t constitute medical advice.)

Know that you can’t just show up to a doctors’ office, demand a coronavirus test, and then get one.

An inability to handle testing all the people who likely need to be tested has been a recurring theme with coronavirus so far: Officials deemed the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantine a failure, because medical personnel neglected to test everyone on board, and the United States has been so slow to distribute test supplies, that some labs have begun making their own, Greg Poland, an internal medicine physician with Mayo Clinic, told VICE.

“While we know a lot, we're still in the position of, you know, flying the airplane while we're building it,” Poland said. To the increasingly panicked general population, watching appointed health officials fumble and doctors rightfully get mad about it is frustrating and low-key terrifying.

Even with tests becoming more widely available, it’s still up to state and local health departments to decide who gets tested. The CDC recommends that healthcare providers only consider testing patients who have either been to an area affected by the virus in the past two weeks or come in close contact with someone who has a confirmed case, and who have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. People who have an ongoing severe respiratory illness (requiring hospitalization) who haven’t traveled to an affected area will also be considered for testing. At this point, unless you have symptoms, you might expect to be turned away from a doctor’s office, even if you have legitimate concern.

Avoid face masks unless otherwise instructed.

The general public is still not advised to stock up on or wear face masks. But if you meet the criteria for possible coronavirus, a healthcare provider may instruct you to do wear one. Poland said that the primary benefit of wearing a mask is behavioral intervention: Wearing a physical barrier on your face not only prevents larger cough droplets from getting on surfaces and people, but prevents you from touching your face and nose (exposing your orifices to germs), and covers your cough with something other than your hands.

The CDC recommends wearing a mask to doctors’ offices, urgent care, or the emergency room, even if you only suspect you may have coronavirus and are asymptomatic, which conflicts with the general advice to not stock up on masks. But if you are mask-less and need to go to the doctor, per below, calling ahead will allow the medical staff a chance to direct you to a different entrance where they can supply you with a mask, according to Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Don’t just show up at an urgent care center—call first.

If you fit the above criteria, call your healthcare provider (your PCP, or a a local urgent care clinic if you don’t have one ) and tell them where you’ve traveled and what symptoms you’re experiencing. The person responsible for answering the phone will either direct you to an equipped testing location, or give you instructions about how to continue monitoring your symptoms from home. We know the stakes for getting someone who works in healthcare on the phone are insanely high, but think of it like making an appointment. Urgent care centers are usually available to see people on shorter notice, but doctors’ offices may also have waitlists for cancellations so they can get you in if you are able to be flexible.

If your symptoms are mild, self-quarantine at home.

As Adalja told VICE, most coronavirus cases will be so mild, people will be able to safely recover at home (like they would if they had a cold), allowing them to avoid hospital bills and potentially infecting other people. You should still call a provider if you’re experiencing any coronavirus symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath), because the fact remains that you’re sick with something (like the very rampant flu).

If you’re told to quarantine at home, it’s a bummer, but minimize interacting with people as much as you can: that means no going to the gym or to the grocery store, no subjecting delivery workers to your sickness by ordering through Postmates, and, if you must go out, this is the rare case where wearing an N95 medical mask is actually appropriate.

If you’re experiencing life-threatening or urgent symptoms, call 911 or go to the ER, as always.

If you’re having difficulty breathing or your symptoms are rapidly worsening, seek prompt medical attention. Still, the CDC recommends calling ahead before showing up to a hospital or clinic, because they’ll need to know if you’ve already tested positive, or if you need to be evaluated for coronavirus. There’s the aforementioned issue of testing availability, and also the risk you, a person potentially infected with the virus, pose to everyone sitting in the waiting room.

If you test positive for coronavirus, avoid other people.

Most cases will be mild enough that you can quarantine and recover at home, and avoid the mounting issue of coronavirus medical debt. If you live with other people, try to contain yourself to one room and bathroom, ideally with an open window for ventilation. Per the CDC, repeatedly sanitize any surfaces you touch, keep washing your hands with soap and water. (Though hand sanitizer is a fine stopgap for people who aren’t sick, Poland said it doesn’t effectively tackle the stuff you’re coughing and sneezing up.) Your healthcare provider will give you information on how long you need to quarantine for, and when/if you should come back for subsequent tests.

And if you don’t have any symptoms right now, get a damn flu shot.

As Poland warns, round two of flu season is just ramping up. You can’t get a shot if you’re actively experiencing symptoms, but otherwise….. My god, what are you waiting for???? “If people haven’t gotten their flu vaccine yet, that’s number one on their priority list to do today,” Poland said. “If this outbreak proceeds, there’s going to be anxiety, confusion, and the possibility of overrunning the medical system.”

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.