COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon—the global pandemic appears to be far from over. And as numbers continue to climb throughout the United States, it’s only natural to feel uneasy and wonder whether your community is in danger and when this will finally end. But arming yourself with the facts—and some practical tips to keep yourself safe—can help ease the urge to panic.
To keep you up to date on the status of the COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States and around the world, here are 10 key facts about the illness you should know now.
1. The Virus Continues to Spread Worldwide
This new coronavirus has spread from its origin of China to more than 100 other locations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here are the key numbers to know for the top affected countries, as of 8 a.m. on July 22, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for System’s Science and Engineering interactive tracker for the virus, which pulls real-time data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Total confirmed cases in the United States: 3,902,233
- Total confirmed cases in Brazil: 2,159,654
- Total confirmed cases in India: 1,193,078
- Total confirmed cases in Russia: 787,846
- Total confirmed cases in Peru: 362,087
- Total confirmed cases in Mexico: 356,255
- Total confirmed cases in Chile: 334,683
- Total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19: 14,974,446
Globally, there have been 617,254 deaths from the virus.
2. The Situation in the U.S. is Dire
There are 3,902,233 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States as of 8 a.m. on July 22, per Johns Hopkins. That makes it the nation with the most cases in the pandemic.
On June 30, the government’s top infectious disease expert Anthony S. Fauci said that the United States was on its way to having 100,000 new COVID-19 cases per day “if this does not turn around,” the Washington Post reported. “We’re going to continue to be in a lot of trouble, and there’s going to be a lot of hurt if that does not go away,” he said.
All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas are reporting cases, says the CDC. The U.S. counties reporting the most cases are:
- Los Angeles County (California): 159,045 cases
- Cook County (Illinois): 99,052 cases
- Maricopa County (Arizona): 96,711 cases
- Miami-Dade County (Florida): 87,035 cases
- Queens County (New York): 66,401 cases
- Kings County (New York): 60,775 cases
- Harris County (Texas): 57,071 cases
- Bronx County (New York): 48,888 cases
- Nassau County (New York): 42,678 cases
The virus has been spreading in U.S. communities since February, says the CDC—these are called “community spread” cases. These are detected in people who don’t report any known exposure to someone else with COVID-19. Basically, they got the illness—likely in their own community—but exactly where or when they were exposed to it is unknown.
As of July 22, there have been 142,073 deaths from COVID-19 reported in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins.
3. This Virus Is Brand New
This coronavirus outbreak is a new type of coronavirus that just spread from animals to humans in December 2019, says the CDC. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses found in certain animals, and in the past, there have been rare cases where they can infect humans and start to spread from person to person.
That’s what happened with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). Experts are now calling the new version of this virus SARS-CoV-2 because it appears to be distantly related to the first SARS-CoV. All three of these viruses appear to have come from bats.
Because this virus is barely half a year old, top scientists are still uncovering the facts about SARS-CoV-2 and the illness it causes, COVID-19. Much of what experts are saying comes from educated guesses based on how other coronaviruses, like SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, operate.
4. The Virus Spreads in 3 Ways
It appears the new virus, SARS-CoV-2, spreads mainly through person-to-person contact, according to the CDC. That includes:
- Transmission between people in close contact (about 6 feet from each other or closer)
- Transmission from respiratory droplets produced when a person with the virus sneezes, coughs, or talks, which can then land in the noses or mouths of others nearby or maybe even be inhaled into someone else’s lungs
- Possible transmission from touching a surface or object with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or possibly eyes (however, this isn’t the primary way the CDC thinks the virus is transmitted)
As for how contagious the virus is, the CDC says it spreads “very easily and sustainably” between people. It seems to be more contagious than the flu, but not as contagious as measles. As a general rule, the CDC says the more closely you interact with others and the longer the interaction, the greater your risk of getting COVID-19.
“It is a general theory that people are most contagious when they are outwardly presenting symptoms, which for this virus, the most common symptoms are coughing, respiratory difficulty, and fever,” says Niket Sonpal, M.D., a board-certified internist practicing in New York, New York. The CDC also notes that the virus may be spread by people who aren’t showing any symptoms.
You may be wondering about whether animals can spread the virus to people, too—this risk is considered low, the CDC says. Additionally, there are a small number of pets worldwide, including cats and dogs, that likely became infected with COVID-19 after close contact with infected humans.
5. Symptoms Can Vary Greatly
While the types of symptoms people infected with COVID-19 report have been across the board, these are the most common, according to the CDC:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of smell or taste
- Sore throat
- Runny nose or congestion
- Nausea or vomiting
Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to COVID-19. Cases have varied from mild to severe, the CDC reports, with kids typically having milder symptoms than adults.
Let your doctor know if you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, and seek emergency medical care if you have any of these warning signs or other severe symptoms:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or chest pressure
- New confusion
- Inability to stay awake or wake up
- Blueish lips or face
Let’s say you’re sick with COVID-19 symptoms—whether you’ve been officially diagnosed or not, take the following steps, according to the CDC:
- Don’t leave the house—except for medical care. If you’re mildly ill, it’s time for that “self-quarantine” you’ve been hearing about. That means restricting any out-of-the-home activities, only leaving to get medical care. No work and no school for you. If you do leave your home to get care, don’t take public transportation.
- Stay away from people and animals in your home. If you live with others—humans or pets—try to stay away from them. If you can, isolate yourself to a specific room and separate bathroom. Don’t share personal household items (like drinking glasses or bedding) with others in your home.
- Call your doc before your appointment. If you’re getting medical care, make sure to tell the staff beforehand that you might have COVID-19—that way they can take steps to protect themselves when you’re there.
- Monitor your symptoms. When you first develop symptoms, take your temperature to see if you have a fever. Your doc may also give you special instructions for keeping track of your symptoms—make sure to follow those to a T. You may need to report them to local health authorities.
- Wear a cloth face covering. Wear a cloth face covering while you’re sick to protect others when you’re around people or animals—it should cover your nose and mouth. Because COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets, cloth face coverings act as a barrier to help prevent the virus’s spread. Right now, the CDC says surgical masks and respirators should be reserved for health care works and first responders, so stick to cloth masks—that could be a cotton one you buy online, a bandana, or even one you cut out of an old T-shirt. And while those mask with the little plastic valves may look high-tech, know that they’re not doing the job as intended: While they filter air coming in, they don’t filter the breath you let out, which defeats the purpose of trying to protect others, Lifehacker reports.
- Take the other usual sick precautions. That means covering your coughs and sneezes, and of course washing your hands (20 seconds with soap and water), especially after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, or handling food.
- Avoid touching your face as much as you can. Make sure high-touch surfaces in your home are cleaned and disinfected regularly. Last but not least, make sure you’re getting rest and staying hydrated, and take over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen as needed.
Do these things until your doctor gives you the OK to resume normal activities. If your symptoms get worse, call your doctor right away.
6. Some People Are at Increased Risk of Severe Illness With COVID-19
Most cases of COVID-19—80% according to the World Health Organization (WHO)—are mild or asymptomatic, with the virus mostly hanging out in the nose and throat and staying put. But for those in whom the virus moves on to the lungs, it can be more dangerous, leading to pneumonia and other issues.
Fifteen percent of people with COVID-19 develop severe infections, with trouble breathing and requiring oxygen, and 5% of patients become critical and need ventilation, usually due to respiratory failure or failure of other major systems in the body, or due to septic shock, according to WHO.
The CDC announced June 25 in a news release that they had expanded the list of who is at higher risk of severe illness due to COVID-19. Those at increased risk include:
- Older adults. It’s not just those over the age of 65 who are at higher risk—the CDC now says that risk increases as you age. The older you are, the higher your risk of a severe case. They note that the risk is partially tied to the fact that older adults are more likely to have additional underlying health conditions. Which brings us to…
- People with underlying health conditions. Those with underlying medical conditions appear to be at increased risk of more severe illness from COVID-19, the CDC says. Right now, evidence consistently shows an increased risk for the following conditions:
- Chronic kidney disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Serious heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, heart failure, or cardiomyopathies
- Sickle cell disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Having a weak immune system due to a solid organ transplant
- Having a BMI of 30 or higher
Asthma, high blood pressure, pregnancy, neurologic conditions like dementia, and cerebrovascular disease like stroke may also increase the risk of severe COVID-19 illness, but the evidence is not as strong for these.
7. There Are Two Types of Tests Currently Available
The National Institutes of Health now recommend that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, along with anyone who has been exposed to someone known to have COVID-19, get tested for the virus. A viral test can confirm your diagnosis.
The tests are pretty simple to take—usually a swab in the nose, mouth, or throat. But the availability of testing is more complicated, as it really depends on where you live. You’ll have higher testing priority if you have active symptoms, per the CDC. To learn more about testing locations in your area and to make an appointment, check out your local health department’s website for information.
If you test positive, make sure you take the steps under No. 5 of this list to protect yourself and others. And if you have symptoms but don’t get tested, same rules apply.
A word about those antibody tests you’ve been hearing about: Yes, you can now get tested to find out if you have antibodies against COVID-19—basically, this tells you whether you’ve been exposed to the virus in the past (keep in mind that it can take 1-3 weeks for your body to produce antibodies after infection). The thinking here is that if you’ve already been exposed to the virus, you may be immune to getting reinfected in the future.
That said, the CDC currently recommends against using antibody tests just to find out whether you’re immune to COVID-19 infection. Why? Well, the CDC says, we don’t yet know quite how long antibodies hang out in the body after infection (one June 2020 study in Nature suggested they may last only a 2-3 months), and we also don’t know whether having antibodies in your blood actually provides a protective immunity against getting the virus again in the future—or for how long that protection might last. Not to mention there’s a possibility that you can get a false-positive.
In a nutshell, antibody testing just isn’t that helpful at the moment—but you should consider viral testing if you think you may be sick.
9. A Vaccine Is, Unfortunately, a Ways Off—But Treatments Are Coming Sooner
As of now, there’s no vaccine you can get to prevent COVID-19—so the preventive steps above are super important. But scientists are diligently working toward developing a vaccine against this new coronavirus, with 14 options currently in human clinical trials, per the Milken Institute’s vaccine tracker.
The process of approving a vaccine as safe and effective normally takes a decade, according to the Milken Institute, but these vaccines are being fast-tracked as much as possible, and several look promising. To be approved, a vaccine has to go through pre-clinical studies; phase I, II, and III trials, each with more and more study participants involved; and finally a regulatory review. Only then can a vaccine become available to the public. As of July 1, there are two vaccines poised to enter phase III trials, and five currently in phase II.
But a vaccine is still a distant goal, with each phase of trials taking months to complete: “Some estimates have been proposing an 18-month wait while the health officials of various countries look at the possibilities, it is hard to say currently when a vaccine will be ready,” says Dr. Sonpal. Milken Institute says the earliest we can expect a vaccine would be January 2021, 12 months after the vaccine development race began.
That said, new treatments will likely be developed faster to help people infected with the virus, and many options are currently being studied.
So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only authorized emergency use of one antiviral drug—remdesivir—in severe COVID-19 cases, STAT reported. It’s the first drug shown to be effective against the virus, per a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases study of more than 1,000 patients.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t come cheap: Gilead Sciences, Inc., the pharmaceutical developer that made the drug, announced that it would charge $2,340 for a 5-day course of remdesivir for most patients in the United States, per an open letter from Gilead’s CEO.
10. You Should Think Twice About Travel Right Now
Community spread of COVID-19 is occurring throughout the United States and on a global scale. That means travel—within the United States or out of the country—comes with risks.
We know you’re probably going stir-crazy from months of isolation—but the CDC wants you to seriously consider whether your summer vacation plans are worth risking infection of yourself and others. With some forms of travel, like flying or bus or train travel, it can be difficult if not impossible to maintain a 6-foot distance from others, which ups your chances of infecting others (even if you don’t have symptoms) or getting the virus yourself.
If you have an increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness, or live with people at increased risk, it’s even more important to limit your travel, the CDC says. And those who are currently sick or who have been around someone infected with COVID-19 in the past 14 days should definitely not travel.
Additionally, some places you may want to travel may require you to stay home for 14 days after traveling—so make sure you check state and local government restrictions before you go.
If you do have to travel, there are things you can do to reduce your risk:
- Wash your hands often. Make sure you’re following proper handwashing guidelines (see number 8 above). Carry hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol with you for times while traveling when you can’t quickly or easily access soap and water. And don’t touch your face!
- Wear your cloth face covering. You should wear your mask at all times in public while traveling.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes. Remember—have tissues on hand to cough or sneeze into, or use your inner elbow.
- Be wise with food. If you’re traveling and need a bite to eat, go for drive-through restaurant options or those with curbside pickup. Even better, pack your snacks at home to take with you if you can.
As for international travel, the CDC currently recommends everyone avoid all nonessential travel—period—because of the severity of COVID-19 spread globally. Additionally, most foreign nationals who have been to Brazil, China, Iran, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and most European countries in the past 14 days have been prohibited from entering the United States.