Coronavirus is a blanket term for several respiratory illnesses, ranging from the common cold to more severe viruses such as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

By Julie Mazziotta
March 20, 2020 01:52 PM
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The new coronavirus, COVID-19, has reached nearly every part of the globe after it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019. The virus, now officially considered a global pandemic, has unquestionably changed daily life for billions of people as everyone works to contain the disease.

Most of the U.S. is now shut down as COVID-19 moves through the country, with many schools, offices, restaurants and bars closed and Americans staying indoors to slow the virus’ spread. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have confirmed cases, with major outbreaks in New York, Washington state and California.

Here’s what you need to know about COVID-19 to stay informed.

What is the coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a term for several respiratory illnesses, ranging from the common cold to more severe viruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The symptoms typically include trouble breathing, fever, coughing, headache and a sore throat. The World Health Organization later termed this virus COVID-19, and on March 11, after major outbreaks outside of China, they declared it a pandemic.

Coronavirus
| Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

How did it start?

Initially, Chinese health officials believed that this coronavirus was only transmitted from animal to human, and they identified a food market in Wuhan with seafood and mammals as the likely source. However, they’ve since determined that it can move from human to human, as people who had no contact with the market have contracted the virus.

How does it spread?

The virus is highly contagious, and typically spreads through the air, from coughing and sneezing. It can also live on surfaces for 24 to 72 hours, depending on the material, and people can contract the virus if they touch an infected surface and then touch their mouth, nose or eyes.

“It spreads similar to how other viruses spread — via people being in close contact with someone who is infected,” Nicole Avena, assistant professor at Mount Sinai Medical School, tells PEOPLE. “Airplanes, offices and schools are places where people are near each other and can easily spread the virus from coughing into the air.”

Credit: MARIJAN MURAT/dpa/AFP/Getty

How deadly is it?

For “most” people, around 80 percent, the symptoms will be mild.

“But about 15 percent of people will get a serious chest infection, and some of those are quite critically ill, and some people die from that,” Dr. William Haseltine, infectious disease expert and Chair and President of ACCESS Health International, tells PEOPLE.

“Everyone has the same chance” of contracting the virus, says Haseltine. But certain demographics are more at risk of developing a severe case, and dying. People who are 65 and older, those who are immunocompromised and those who have preexisiting conditions, such as cancer, need to take extra precautions.

What are the best prevention methods?

Right now, there are no vaccines that can prevent the transmission of this coronavirus, though researchers around the globe are working on developing both a vaccine and treatment methods. On March 17, the first major clinical trial in the U.S. began on an expedited schedule. However, even with the faster methods, a vaccine would not likely be ready for 12 to 16 months.

For now, the best way people can protect themselves is with basic hygiene and social distancing. The CDC recommends that people wash their hands often with soap and water, lathering for at least 20 seconds. They also say to avoid people who are sick, and for people to not touch their face with unwashed hands.

There is also a huge emphasis on social distancing — for people to stay home except for essential tasks, even if they are not sick, and staying six feet away from other people. This is all part of an effort to “flatten the curve,” meaning to slow the rate of infection to avoid overloading medical centers.

Flattening the Curve
| Credit: Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris

And as of April 3, the CDC advised wearing a non-medical mask (like a bandana) when going out in public, based on new data showing that “between 25 and 50 percent” of people may never show COVID-19 symptoms.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the hope is that any kind of mask can help asymptomatic people from unknowingly spreading the virus.

Should people be concerned if they’re traveling?

It is best to refrain from traveling for the next few months. Under new restrictions, Americans are not allowed to travel outside of the U.S., and the borders between Canada and Mexico have closed. All domestic travel should be canceled, unless it is essential.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.