A new form of coronavirus first identified in China has now spread to the United States. But thankfully, the overall risk that you’ll come into contact with the virus is still low.
As of Friday, Jan. 31, a handful of people in the U.S. have tested positive for the respiratory virus—most of whom had recently traveled from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began. However, the first confirmed person-to-person transmission of the virus—called 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)—in the United States was reported Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Chicago. The man contracted the virus from his wife, who was diagnosed with it after returning from Wuhan on Jan. 13.
"This news may raise people’s concerns, but I want to state clearly that this development is something that we have been prepared for," said Allison Arwady, chief medical officer at Chicago Department of Public Health, at a press conference Thursday. "There is no need for the general public to change their behavior in any way based on today’s news. There is no local emergency."
There are currently 121 people in the United States who are “under investigation” for the respiratory virus, per the CDC, which basically means they’re awaiting testing by the CDC. States with confirmed cases include California, Arizona, Illinois, and Washington. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself.
#1 This Virus Is Brand New
Coronaviruses are a big family of viruses found in certain animals. In rare cases, they can infect people and start to spread between humans. This is what happened with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
But this new coronavirus outbreak—2019 nCoV—is a new type of the virus that’s just spread to humans from animals that isn’t the same as those two illnesses, although experts say it looks to be distantly related to the SARS virus, according to the CDC.
#2 It Probably Spreads Just Like the Flu
Since the virus is so new, there’s not currently a vaccine available that can prevent you from getting it and we don’t yet fully understand how contagious the virus is between people, but it is spreading from person-to-person when close contact has occurred, says the CDC. But there are steps we can take to stay safe.
The CDC recommends these precautions to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses in general:
- Wash your hands, and often. Regular old soap and water does the trick, as long as you’re washing for at least 20 seconds. You can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Avoiding exposure to viruses in the first place is your safest bet. Similarly, when you’re sick, you should stay home too.
Stop touching your face. Touching your nose, eyes, and mouth with unwashed hands is a quick way to spread germs.
Cover your coughs and sneezes. Use a tissue to cover your cough or sneeze, then throw out the tissue and wash your hands.
Keep your surroundings clean. It’s a good idea to regularly clean and disinfect high-traffic surfaces and objects, like kitchen counters, door knobs, and kids’ toys, to name a few.
...So basically, all the same stuff you should already be doing to prevent the flu and other nasty viruses and colds. It’s still flu season, people! Be vigilant.
We do know that similar viruses can spread with close contact, meaning about six feet, the CDC says. Usually this happens when an infected person coughs or sneezes and the droplets produced land in the mouths or noses of others or are breathed into the lungs.
#3 Your Risk of Being Exposed to Coronavirus Is Still Super Low
Information is evolving daily, the CDC says, but we do know that your risk is dependent on whether you’ve been exposed to the virus. Some people have an increased risk of the infection, including health care workers who are caring for people with 2019-nCoV.
The good news is that overall immediate health risk for the general U.S. public right now is low since it’s still unlikely that you would have even had the opportunity to come in contact with this virus. Even if you have a chronic condition that makes you more prone to illness, know that your risk right now is still low if you haven’t traveled to China recently or come into contact with someone with the virus.
#4 Expect Extra Screenings if Traveling From China
Currently, the CDC recommends that everyone avoid all nonessential travel to China, where the outbreak began. If you’re traveling from China to the United States, you should expect to go through a health screening in the airport. CDC staff will give you a short questionnaire about your travel and symptoms, along with your contact information. They’ll take your temperature and look out for things like fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. If they suspect you may be sick, they will evaluate you further and get you care as needed.
If you pass the screening symptom-free, they’ll send you on your way with information about symptoms watch for and what to do if you develop any within 14 days of leaving China.
If you’re traveling, but not to or from China, there’s currently no increased risk, according to the CDC. So there’s no need to go out and stock up on face masks for the airplane—the CDC stated in a briefing Thursday that they’re not recommending routine face mask use.
#5 Symptoms Might Mimic Some of Your Chronic Flare Symptoms
If you’ve come into close contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the coronavirus or who is currently being evaluated for the virus, you should watch your health closely, starting from the day of your close contact with that person, for 14 days. “If you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, make note of any of these symptoms that may be similar to one’s you feel during your flares. Key symptoms to watch for include:
- Fever (take your temperature twice daily)
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
You should also keep an eye out for chills, body aches, sore throat, headache, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and runny nose. Call your doctor immediately if you develop any of these symptoms. Make sure to tell them on the phone that you’ve had close contact with someone with confirmed or possible 2019-nCoV infection.
If you don’t have any symptoms, you can continue to go about your daily life as normal.