The CDC announced Tuesday that it considers widespread coronavirus in the U.S. more of a “when” than an “if” situation, and people have, unsurprisingly, been freaking out. There’s plenty of cause for concern: As of this writing, more than 82,000 cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed worldwide, and almost 3,000 people have passed away as a result of the infection.
Despite widespread concerns about whether people need to stockpile masks, hoard water and pet food, and/or stay away from other human beings altogether, there’s no need to panic (is there ever?!?). We feel confident that we can answer any questions you have about the coronavirus and its probable impact in a way that will make you feel a little more secure, and a little less likely to do some full Contagion cosplay, à la Gwyneth.
Should I be worried about coronavirus, like, this very minute?
The short answer: If you’re young and generally healthy, no, not at this time.
Headlines and doctors have been tossing around alarming words like “pandemic” and “outbreak” to characterize the virus, but coronavirus has far from reached epidemic levels in the United States. A pandemic is a disease that has infected people globally, while an “epidemic” connotes a disease whose spread is out of control. The WHO hasn’t yet declared coronavirus a pandemic (even though it meets two of the three criteria for a pandemic, according to the CDC), which would cause countries to launch prepared pandemic plans, because it’s not yet clear that those strategies would be effective at controlling the disease. That may still happen in the future—the virus, for reasons explained below, is proving difficult to contain, even with all our rigorous quarantine efforts. But this isn’t the time to build a bunker, buy a prep kit, or do anything more serious than the normal things a human should do to stay healthy (namely: washing your icky little hands!!!).
Oh, shit—the person next to me is coughing. Do they have coronavirus?
Nah, probably not.
One doctor told the New York Times that physically backing away from sick people is another 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. We say: 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.
A cough is a symptom of coronavirus, but there have only been 35 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States as of February 23. And, so far, many coronavirus cases have been found in people without any symptoms at all. If people around you (or you) are coughing, it’s much more likely to be allergies, a cold, or the humble flu (see next question). If you feel sick yourself, put down the cold medicine and visit a doctor.
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 if a physician if you develop any symptoms.
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.
Can I still go on the vacation I have planned this summer?
Unless you’ve got a trip booked to China and/or South Korea, yes, you can still go on vacation. You may have heard whispers of travel bans, but most public health officials recommend against them because they don’t really work. The CDC is actively updating a list of travel advisories for Americans, and only recommends avoiding nonessential travel to China and South Korea. Iran, Italy, and Japan are experiencing sustained transmission of coronavirus, but unless you or someone you’re traveling with is older and/or has a chronic medical condition, you don’t need to cancel plans to visit those countries. Ships and airlines have been given their own guidelines by the CDC to help minimize the spread of the virus. The best thing you can do is wash your hands, and, if you’re sick, stay home, and don’t get on an airplane or cruise ship.
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 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 earlier 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.
Do I need to shave my beard into a soul patch, or… ?
Unless you actually need to wear a respirator (which, like we said above, you probably don’t), your face rug can remain intact. A flashy, facial hair-centric graphic, which was released by the CDC in 2017 and resurfaced this week, only pertains to healthcare professionals likely to be in direct contact with patients. If you’re a doctor or a nurse, then, yeah, trim the mutton chops in order to avoid compromising your face mask’s sealing surface (or do it anyway, because, c’mon). If that’s not you, you’re in the clear.
Is it safe to eat at a Chinese restaurant?
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. As far as stockpiling weed goes… IDK, if you're cool, you already do.
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?
To reiterate, the CDC guidelines are super straightforward, and really not that different from what you’d do normally to avoid catching the flu. According to the agency’s website, the best course of action is to avoid close contact with anyone who has the coronavirus (duh?); avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; stay home when you’re sick; keep your living space clean and disinfect “frequently touched surfaces and objects"; and wash your hands frequently, especially after going to the bathroom, coughing, or sneezing. Easy!
What should I say to my mom or dad who keeps sending me coronavirus doomsday texts?
Literally copy and paste this:
Hi, Mom/Dad! I know there are a lot of people saying different things about the coronavirus right now, but I’m actually not that worried, and I don’t think you need to be, either! The CDC says that, for most people, the coronavirus wouldn’t be much more intense than a standard respiratory infection, and the preventative guidelines are pretty similar to the ones you'd follow to keep from getting the flu: They recommend lots of hand-washing, avoiding contact with people who seem sick, and keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. Sounds like what you always say, lol.
Obviously adapt as necessary, given your relationship with your mom and dad, but a word of serious advice: Do not use the cry-laughing emoji. Parents do not and cannot understand what it means, and they might think you’re upset.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.