It’s impossible to tune into the news right now without hearing about the coronavirus (COVID-19). This respiratory illness that began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 has now spread worldwide to every continent except Antarctica.
The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on Mar. 11, 2020, and as more cases are being reported daily in the U.S. and with some communities already reporting outbreaks of the virus, now is the time to finalize preparations for a possible outbreak in your community and heed local, state, and federal government warnings and mandates.
How to prepare for coronavirus in your community
With all the information available, how do you know what is important and what to disregard? Most of it comes down to using some common sense and taking a few extra precautions.
Do: Be aware of coronavirus symptoms.
The most commonly reported symptoms of human coronavirus are fever, cough, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. If you experience these symptoms and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19, or if you live in or have recently traveled to an area with ongoing spread, contact your healthcare provider (preferably by telephone or telehealth portals).
Do: Wash your hands often.
Cleaning your hands with soap and warm water is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from illness, including the coronavirus. Experts recommend washing your hands for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice), covering all areas including between fingers.
If you can’t get to a sink, you can use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethyl alcohol to kill most germs. It’s especially important to wash your hands before preparing or eating food, after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze, and after you’ve been out in public or used public transit.
Don’t: Use your hands to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
It’s best to cough or sneeze into a tissue, then immediately throw the tissue away and wash your hands. When this is not possible, the CDC recommends coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow. It is also important to try your best not to touch your face to avoid infection.
Coronavirus transmission can occur if you touch a surface with infected droplets, then touch your mouth, nose, and possibly even your eyes. Experts also stress the continued importance of receiving a flu shot, as this flu season remains very active.
Do: Learn how to properly disinfect your home (and your phone).
Experts believe that the coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces for several hours, so it’s important to wipe down the commonly touched areas in your living space—such as faucets, countertops, and door knobs with disinfectant.
“Most household disinfectants like Lysol and Clorox wipes claim to kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, but the effectiveness against the new coronavirus strain is still to be determined,” says Ramzi Yacoub, Pharm.D., chief pharmacy officer for SingleCare. “Either way, these products are great at disinfecting objects and surfaces and are useful to limit exposure.”
It’s important to fully wet the surface, not reuse a wipe, and allow the area to dry. Using soap and water is another option because the coronavirus is surrounded by a lipid envelope that keeps the RNA inside the viral particle, and soap breaks down lipids. If there is an outbreak of coronavirus in your community or if you or someone you live with is ill, you’ll want to disinfect several times a day.
Another commonly overlooked source of exposure is cell phones. The Journal of Hospital Infection found that coronaviruses can survive on the glass and plastic found in smartphones for up to nine days. Both Apple and Samsung recommend cleaning phones using a soft, slightly damp cloth so as not to damage the fingerprint-resistant coating on screens. Google says that its Pixel handsets can be wiped with cleaning wipes as long as you avoid ports and buttons, which may be a good idea for all cell phones (you can purchase a cheap screen protector to prevent damage) to truly disinfect.
Don’t: Stockpile freeze-dried food.
News of the coronavirus spread, especially now that there are community outbreaks in the U.S., has caused some people to stock up as though the world were coming to an end. It’s understandable to feel anxious about a possible community outbreak. Yet, experts agree that two weeks of food and supplies is sufficient to have at home. If cities and states start shutting down businesses, grocery stores will remain open and accessible. If coronavirus were to hit your community, it’s a good idea to have some fresh foods and enough non-perishable goods to last a short while in case you need to work from home or self-quarantine, but there’s no reason to buy groceries you wouldn’t normally purchase. You may also want to have some of your go-to favorites for when you’re not feeling well on hand such as chicken or vegetable broth, crackers, and hydrating beverages.
RELATED: What to eat when you have the flu (or a cold)
Do: Refill your prescriptions.
“It’s important for patients to stock up on their prescription medications, in case of quarantines or even manufacturing shortages of medications that are made in China or other areas inundated by coronavirus,” Dr. Yacoub advises. He recommends requesting a refill about seven days before medications run out. “You may also be able to fill 90 days’ worth of medication at a time, if your insurance plan allows it and your doctor writes you a 90-day prescription instead of a 30-day one.”
Medications that officials are concerned could face potential shortages down the line include antibiotics, diabetes drugs, cancer drugs, blood thinners, painkillers, and antivirals for HIV.
Dr. Yacoub also recommends having some over-the-counter medications on hand to help relieve potential coronavirus symptoms such as acetaminophen and Robitussin.
Don’t: Wear a mask unless you are sick.
“Face masks should be used only by individuals who have symptoms of respiratory infection such as coughing, sneezing, or, in some cases, fever,” says Irena L. Kenneley, APHRN, associate professor at Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, who has done extensive research on infection control and epidemiology of infectious disease. “Healthcare workers and individuals who are taking care of or are in close contact with people who have respiratory infections, or otherwise as directed by a doctor.”
According to Kenneley “there is no evidence to suggest that face masks worn by healthy individuals are effective in preventing people from becoming ill.” The problem is, viruses can pass through the materials in most masks. “There are some very expensive types (known as N-95 and N-99) that have been made to largely control exposure to disease,” says Kenneley, but as she explains, “N95 respirators require special fit testing and are not recommended for use by the general public.” Another point to consider is that during times of an epidemic, these specialized masks need to be available to healthcare professionals.
Don’t: Visit a doctor’s office or hospital if you are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus without calling first.
Letting your healthcare provider know that you may have coronavirus will help them to take the proper steps to prevent others from getting infected or exposed.
As of now, the coronavirus has spread to all 50 states in the U.S. It’s a good idea to take some isolation precautions should your local community experience an outbreak, especially if you are over 60 years of age, have an underlying medical condition, or a weakened immune system.
Do: Reconsider nonessential travel.
The CDC is recommending travelers avoid all nonessential travel to coronavirus hotspots including China, Iran, South Korea, Malaysia, South Korea, and all European countries. Older adults and those who have chronic medical conditions are being advised to shelter in place if possible during this time. According to Kenneley, it’s a good idea to “check your state health department for news in your locality.” It is also being recommended that employers should allow employees to work from home if possible. The U.S. government is currently taking steps to prevent coronavirus transmission. Restrictions have been placed on visitors traveling to and from countries with outbreaks and widespread community transmission.
Drug manufacturers are also working towards the development of a vaccine, which they say could take a year to a year and a half. In the meantime, as Kenneley stresses, “prevention may be the best medicine!”