Update, 3/13: This post has been updated throughout to reflect the evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus situation in the United States and around the entire world has changed quite a bit since late February, which was approximately….. 50 years ago. The WHO has since declared this coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak to be a pandemic, the number of cases in the U.S. have risen exponentially, and Trump is reportedly about to declare a national state of emergency. All of this sounds AHHHASHDIOAHGOAIASHAOI. But—quick vibe/panic check—it’s still not time to panic! The questions and answers around this coronavirus pandemic have slightly changed in recent weeks (are we supposed to know what “social distancing” means???), but we remain confident that good information and human decency can do a lot to make everyone feel safe and secure.
Should I be worried about coronavirus, like, this very minute?
It remains that young people without any underlying health conditions will generally be OK and, if infected, will either be asymptomatic, or feel like they have a bad cold; most cases involve a fever, cough, and shortness of breath as symptoms.
The biggest changes this week were the new pandemic designation, meaning the disease is likely to spread to every country, and more than half of U.S. states declaring states of emergency. Words like “pandemic” and “emergency,” are, uh, wild and scary. But the WHO stressed that there’s still a lot people can do to slow the spread of this outbreak, social distancing being perhaps the most important (more on that below).
Oh, shit—the person next to me is coughing. Do they have coronavirus?
While the number of coronavirus cases in the United States is up to almost 1,700, it’s still more likely that the person coughing next to you on the bus or in line at the mobbed grocery store has allergies, a regular cold, or the flu.
A cough is a symptom of coronavirus, but, so far, most confirmed cases have been in people who didn’t have any symptoms at all. One doctor told the New York Times that physically backing away from sick people is a smart precaution. “If you see someone on a bus who is coughing, move away,” said Dr. Stanley Perlman, an infectious disease and coronavirus expert at the University of Iowa, told the Times. (Once again, Stanley, welcome to the real world. People poop on the bus. Bugging out over a cough when we're already living in that reality is just not practical.)
Can I still go on the vacation I have planned this summer?
If you have a trip planned for any sooner than April—especially, but not exclusively, to any of the states or countries that have now declared states of emergency—you should really not be going on that trip. Continuing to go about our regular lives, hopping on planes, touching feces-laden security bins, and eating pretzels with our grubby hands is what will keep this pandemic in the news for forever. Airlines realize this, and so almost all of them are letting travelers cancel trips within a near-term date range for a full refund (in travel credit), or rebook their itineraries for a later date.
As we’ve seen, this stuff changes fast; the global situation will look a lot different in two weeks than it does right now. Most airlines that have cutoffs for travel they deem to be affected by coronavirus also say they’ll keep updating their protocol. So if you have a flight in mid-April, May, or anytime this summer that you’re starting to sweat about, sit tight, and wait to make any drastic changes until closer to your trip. Airlines have been basically pleading with travelers to please not call customer service unless they have a flight within the next 72 hours. People with immediate plans have been clamoring to get refunds and change plans ever since Trump shut off travel to Europe, and more states declared states of emergency. If you do need to call customer service, try something radical and treat the service rep kindly. Fielding hundreds of calls from frazzled travelers every day sounds awful but it can be less bad if people aren’t assholes.
Who is getting the most severe infections? Is coronavirus gonna kill me?
As with the flu, the people most likely to get the sickest from coronavirus are the elderly, those with pre-existing and chronic medical conditions, and those who take immunosuppressants. Epidemiologists have warned that many people (perhaps even a majority of people) could get coronavirus, but a lot of those infections could be so mild, they’ll pass without any noticeable symptoms or a need for medical care. (For context, 14 percent of people who get the flu never show any symptoms.) No children died from SARS, and so far, kids seem to be mostly spared from coronavirus.
The wide range of severity is part of why epidemiologists quote such big infection rate predictions (between 40–70 percent, according to Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard). Fourteen of the Americans who tested positive for the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February felt completely fine; if people don’t feel sick, they’ll continue going about their normal lives, spreading the disease. That bodes well for healthy, young people, but not so well for people who are immunocompromised. The biggest concern facing us is overwhelming medical resources for severe cases in the event that the infection rate stays as high as it has been, which has already become a problem in Italy; this is why doing your part to mitigate the spread matters beyond your personal ability to weather the illness.
As long as coronavirus tests remain extremely hard to actually get, people who have the virus but feel totally fine will keep unwittingly spreading it around. All the more reason to practice social distancing!!!!!
Should I be stockpiling food and water? Should I be stockpiling weed?
In the words of the (debatably) smartest person in one of our group chats: Stockpiling food is kind of just grocery shopping. Some experts recommend grabbing enough food for a few days, or even a few weeks in case of quarantine—if it makes you feel better, go for it, but no need to buy out the supply of gallon water jugs at your local Kroger. In Italy, which is on pretty strict lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus, people are still allowed to go to grocery stores and pharmacies. As far as stockpiling weed goes… IDK, if you're cool, you already do.
Hearing a lot of new phrases… like “social distancing,” “self-quarantine,” and something about a “curve.” What’s up? Am I allowed to go outside?
Coronavirus cases escalated extremely fast in China and now also in Italy. The United States is trying to… not have that happen. The federal officials handling this are doing a phenomenally terrible job, but the good news is that individual citizens can do a lot on their own to slow the spread of coronavirus. Aside from washing your hands the proper way (warm water, 20 seconds, dry with a paper towel), the most important thing you can do right now, as a healthy person, is practice social distancing. You may also be hearing about quarantine and isolation, which are also important, but have different meanings:
- Social distancing is just a handful of tactics meant to keep people from being around big groups of more people. You’re doing this right by avoiding peak transit times, working from home if you can, and staying away from crowded events or concerts (most of which are being canceled, anyway). You can still go outside and take walks, but going to a crowded bar, just for the yuks, is not the best idea.
- Quarantine is restricting movement of someone who may have been exposed to the virus, but isn’t sick. You may be asked to do this if someone from your workplace or in your social circles has a suspected or confirmed case. This is more severe than social distancing; in a quarantine, you’ll be asked to stay in your home as much as possible, and limit interaction with other people (including roommates and partners). Most coronavirus quarantines last 14 days.
- Isolation is what happens if you get coronavirus, and is meant to keep infected people from getting anyone else sick. Isolation is… Isolation, i.e. the most limited contact you can possibly have with the outside world and other people. Without a vaccine available, this is the most effective way to stop an outbreak (it’s what mostly stopped the SARS outbreak in 2003).
- The “flattening of the curve” you’re hearing about is a strategy epidemiologists use to prevent huge spikes in infection, according to Vox. What it looks like is a chart with one tall, scary spike of cases that the health care system can’t adequately handle, versus a nice, long curve that lasts longer, but stays within a reasonable range for our health care system to manage. That lower curve only happens if people take the protective measures of social distancing, hand washing, mitigating social contact, and properly quarantining and isolating if asked to do so.
What’s up with food delivery… Can I still get my Sunday night takeout?
Hourly workers and restaurant employees are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus and its financial consequences. If you’re sick, in isolation, or in quarantine, absolutely no, do not make a delivery person come to your contagion door!!! Many delivery people are instructed not to just leave bags of food unattended on doorsteps or stoops. If you’re healthy and just practicing social distancing and you absolutely must order pho to your home during these times, tip generously via your delivery app of choice, and don’t physically interact with your delivery person if you don’t have to.
I’m so lonely. How can I get my social fix in without putting other people at risk?
You know what? We’re lonely too! But luckily, we’re lonely in an era where we can video chat. Whether it’s okay to pop into a sparsely populated bar and grab a drink remains a matter of debate . But insofar as scientists strenuously recommend staying away from crowded venues, parades, and other large public gatherings. We suggest sharing a digital beer, tuning in to a live streamed concert, or calling your freaking grandparents. Also, small gatherings of non-symptomatic people, either outdoors or in the privacy of your apartment, should fit the guidelines of social distancing. Yeah, it blows, but better safe than sorry!
OK, I’m done freaking out, but I’m not a very attentive reader—what can I actually do to keep myself from getting sick?
Right now, it’s less about keeping yourself from getting sick than it is about trying to keep the spread of COVID-19 as contained as possible—again, we’re talking “flattening the curve.” Essentially, you should be taking steps to reduce the severity of the eventual outbreak and delay the outbreak’s peak. Many of the same precautions apply: Keep washing your hands frequently, for the mandated 20 seconds, and avoid touching your face. Practice social distancing (take your cues from this Italian king… he’d never steer you wrong!), avoid unnecessary travel and crowds, and if you’re feeling sick, please stay home.
Sure, this is not a public health crisis that can be tackled by personal steps alone, but with what looks to be a woefully insufficient government response underway, it’s important to take a measure of responsibility while remaining as calm and informed as possible.
What should I say to my mom or dad who went from sending me coronavirus doomsday texts to booking a discounted Carnival Cruise?
Literally copy and paste this:
Hi Mom/Dad! I know I said I wasn’t that worried about coronavirus before, but from what I’ve been seeing on the news, things have changed. There’s a lot of misinformation going around right now, but the facts we do know are pretty sobering. Now is not the time to book a cheap flight or get a good deal on a cruise—even if you don’t think there could be any consequences for you, the WHO has released data suggesting that people over the age of 60 are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Plus, the WHO and CDC both recommend shelving nonessential travel in order to lower the risk of getting or transmitting the virus to others. I might sound like the parent right now, but I’m very serious about this. Please, for my peace of mind, would you think about avoiding travel until we know more about the situation at hand?
Do I need to shave my beard into a soul patch, or… ?
Once again, unless you actually need to wear a respirator (which, unless you’re a medical professional, you probably don’t), your facial hair is in the clear. If you’re working from home and seeing next to no one, now might even be a good time to experiment with new styling choices. What, like you have anything better to do?
Is it safe to eat at a Chinese restaurant?
Your local Chinese restaurant probably needs support right now, but we’d recommend doing takeout or delivery, for keeping up with social distancing best practices. As far as like, Chinese food specifically: Yes, it's fine. Don’t be racist.
Should I get a flu shot if I'm worried about coronavirus?
Yes…. YES!!! Even in years without concerns of global pandemics, you should be getting your damn flu shot. It’s good for your own health and for the health of everyone around you. While the flu’s fatality rate (about 0.1 percent) is less than that of coronavirus (about 2.3 percent), there are far more flu cases in the U.S. than there are coronavirus cases. And the flu, which is essentially a pandemic that happens every single year, isn’t getting the big-gun emergency response treatment that coronavirus currently is, so it’s far more likely that people are walking around with the flu, passing it along. This is especially worrying amid coronavirus concerns, because the two viruses share a few symptoms (fever, cough, body ache, and fatigue) in common. Get your flu shot (it’s not too late), stay home if you’re sick, and see a physician if you develop any symptoms (just call first).
Do I need a medical mask? Do I need a full-on medical SUIT?!
No. Save yourself the $70 and don’t stock up on massively price-hiked medical masks. You might be seeing people in these masks in pictures from outbreak areas abroad, but the CDC isn’t currently recommending them for healthy people in the U.S. While, as far as we know, coronavirus is spread like other respiratory diseases—through little sneeze and cough droplets, within six feet—wearing a mask only does any good if you’re working in a medical setting, or are sick yourself (in which case: stay home). Stockpiling masks is a waste of money and limits the availability for the healthcare workers who actually need them.
And, by God, do not buy anything being bundled and sold as a “pandemic prep kit” or “coronavirus protection suit.” As the virus spreads, more and more opportunistic businesses are selling gear made for healthcare workers to anyone who will fork over the money. There’s no need to be dressing in Ghostbuster-style coveralls; don’t be a sucker.
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