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Coronavirus Mailbag: Answers to 14 questions you’ve asked us about COVID-19

Coronavirus Mailbag: Answers to 14 questions you’ve asked us about COVID-19

(Xiong Qi, Xinhua via AP, File)

Estimated read time: 14-15 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

UPDATE: As of March 12, five Utahns had tested positive for COVID-19, according to state officials.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Department of Health officials on Tuesday confirmed a second case of COVID-19 in Utah. The new coronavirus has slowly spread globally, reaching the U.S. on a wider scale over the past few weeks.

As of Wednesday morning, There were more than 120,000 confirmed cases and more than 4,300 deaths worldwide from the coronavirus, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering numbers. There have been more than 1,000 cases in the U.S., and the death toll has risen to more than two dozen, according to NBC News. It was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization Wednesday.

The slow and mysterious spread has led to mass confusion. Over the past few days, we have asked our readers to submit questions you have about the virus. We’ve received more than 150 questions over so far. Here are some of those questions and the answers we’ve found.

What are the symptoms?

Known symptoms of the virus are fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..

The World Health Organization adds tiredness and "dry cough" among its symptoms. Some patients have experienced aches and pains, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea, the organization continued.

The CDC recommends anyone who develops these symptoms and has been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 to seek medical advice. It’s also advised you seek medical consultation if you have these symptoms and live in or have recently traveled to an area where there has been an ongoing spread of the coronavirus.

The CDC also advises anyone feeling these symptoms to call a doctor’s office or emergency room in advance before they go.

What is the incubation period?

Researchers analyzing 181 COVID-19 cases from China between Jan. 4 and Feb. 24 had a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine Tuesday that found the median incubation period was about 5.1 days among those cases. That means it took a little more than five days for symptoms to appear for the middle part of the group, but symptoms could start sooner or later than that. It also found that symptoms had developed by 11½ days in close to 98% of cases. They estimate that someone develops symptoms after 14 days in 101 out of every 10,000 cases.

Those findings, they noted, came from the study of severe cases and may not be indicative of mild cases, which have limited reporting.

How long after symptoms pass should you stay isolated?

This is tied to the previous question, a bit. The recommended period to stay isolated is 14 days. The World Health Organization recommends this because it limits the potential exposure of the virus to others. The organization encourages those who start to develop mild symptoms such as a headache, a low-grade fever (99 degrees Fahrenheit) or a slightly runny nose to self-isolated until those symptoms clear, as a precaution. Again, call ahead if you need to see a doctor or go to the emergency room.

We asked this question to Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, as well. She explained that it depends on your travel history, medical symptoms and exposure to someone who has had a lab-confirmed positive test of COVID-19.

"Currently, public health recommends that a person who has a travel exposure or who came into contact with a person who is a laboratory-confirmed positive case for COVID-19 isolate at home and monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days after their last exposure," she said in an email response to "As soon as symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath) appear, you should immediately notify your healthcare provider or local public health department for further guidance on being tested for COVID-19 and instructions on home isolation.

"If you aren’t feeling well but do not have exposure to COVID-19 due to travel or close contact with a confirmed case, then you will need to stay home until you see significant improvements in your symptoms. Remember, it’s still cold and flu season! Because we do not have community spread in Utah right now, more than likely a person will have a different illness other than COVID-19. It’s still important to stay home when you are sick, practice good hygiene, and clean surfaces regularly even if you don’t have COVID-19. Mild or moderate respiratory illness can and should be cared for at home.

"These guidelines can and do change often based on new CDC guidance and the latest science. If you have any questions specific to your individual circumstances, it’s best to either call a healthcare provider or call our Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707."

Is the CDC working on a vaccine?

Several groups of scientists are working on a vaccine. There seem to be encouraging advances, but it’s likely going to take time before it’s released on the market.

For example, the Associated Press reported on Sunday there are a few research groups in line to begin testing a vaccine on volunteers. Even if initial tests go well, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy, told the news wire service that he anticipated it’d likely take 1 to 1 1/2 years, at least, before a vaccine would be available on the market.

"You can do everything as fast as possible, but you can’t circumvent some of these vital processes," added Kate Broderick, who is the research and development chief for Inovio, one of the companies involved.

Why is everyone so worried about it? Is it much different than the flu?

The World Health Organization points out the viruses are similar in that they both cause respiratory disease, can be spread through contact and can be fatal. There are some differences, especially that the median incubation period for COVID-19 seems to be longer than the flu.

Perhaps one of the reasons there has been more worry is the mortality rate or the percentage of infected people who die. It’s something that has yet to be figured out when talking about COVID-19. WHO listed the mortality rate as somewhere between 3-4% in its report, released Friday. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association last month found a 2.3% mortality rate. The mortality rate in South Korea is 0.6%, according to Time. It’s likely a part of the confusion there is because mild cases may not have been reported. In comparison, the seasonal flu mortality rate is "well below" 0.1%, according to the World Health Organization.

The individuals at risk are also different.

"Those most at risk for severe influenza infection are children, pregnant women, elderly, those with underlying chronic medical conditions and those who are immunosuppressed," WHO officials wrote in their report. "For COVID-19, our current understanding is that older age and underlying conditions increase the risk for severe infection."

Why are people stockpiling toilet paper and bottled water? What should we be storing away?

This is something Utah shoppers began doing as early as two weeks ago, as reports that cases of COVID-19 were popping up along California and Washington. Similar news reports have popped up worldwide. In fact, NT News in Australia even printed out additional pages of its newspapers for readers to use as emergency toilet paper.

Health experts told CNN that some of this is psychological, such as people tend to over-prepare, and people seeing other people do something tends to spark them to do the same thing.

As for items you may need, Dunn said Utahns should have anything needed in case of an extended period of time at home, so items such as:

  • Easy-to-make meals and snacks
  • Over-the-counter medications to treat symptoms like a fever or cough
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Entertainment for family members and children

She also said having some savings in case you need to stay home from work is a good idea.

"It’s also important to think about how you might be able to telecommute, find child care, or keep up on schoolwork if you or your family members needed to be on home isolation," she added.

The CDC has more information about cleaning and disinfection that can be found here.

Why are people stocking up on bottled water? Honestly, what is the threat to our tap water?

There is no threat to the state’s tap water, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality noted on Friday. In fact, they say the systems are designed to be prepared for situations like this.

In a prepared statement, Marie Owens, Utah Division of Drinking Water manager, said: "Drinking water treatment and disinfection has effectively protected Utah’s population for many decades. These protections will safeguard residents against drinking-water-borne viral infections — including coronavirus. There is no need for residents to stock up on surplus bottled water in preparation for a potential outbreak of coronavirus."

I have heard that masks do not prevent the spread of the virus, but I see many people wearing them. What do the medical professionals say?

There are some benefits for masks, but they’re not a cure-all. It also depends on what mask you’re wearing and what you’re using it for. If you’re using it to prevent getting the disease, most facemasks help as a barrier for droplets such as respiratory particles, but they don’t filter small particles from the air effectively, according to the CDC. They also don’t cover the eyes.

N95 respirators are more effective because they filter out 95% of small particles; however, the CDC urges people to get a medical evaluation before using one.

Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a Mayo Clinic infectious diseases specialist, recommends the basics you’ve probably already heard: wash your hands frequently using soap and water for 20 seconds or a hand sanitizer, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, practice good cough etiquette, and stay home if you aren’t feeling well.

Masks are a good tool for those who may have the virus, as they can help prevent contamination from coughing and sneezing, the CDC adds. They’re even recommended for people with either confirmed or suspected cases while isolated at a hospital or their home.

"Face masks help prevent further spread of infection from those who are sick to others around them," Dunn added. "You should only wear a face mask if a healthcare provider recommends it. A face mask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of face masks is also crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings — at home or in a healthcare facility, for example."

What is Utah’s current capacity for testing per day? How many tests are they doing per day? What criteria are they using to determine when to test?

This is another question we asked Dunn. As of Wednesday morning, the Utah Public Health Laboratory could run anywhere between 40 to 60 tests per day.

"The Utah Public Health Laboratory is not maxed out in terms of capacity; we are ready and able to handle the current testing demand," Dunn said. "Not everyone who wants to be tested will or should be tested. As the situation evolves, the criteria for who is appropriate for testing may change. Utah public health departments work closely with healthcare providers and the CDC to determine who meets these criteria and if testing is appropriate given their specific situation."

More information about this testing criteria can be found here.

We’re hearing a lot that the elderly are more vulnerable to the effects of the virus. I can’t do anything about being old, but what specifically is it about the elderly that increases their risk?

Scientists and health officials are still learning about the disease, which makes it difficult to have a definitive answer compared to previously-identified coronaviruses. As the CDC points out, COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, which means this wasn’t known before the 2019 outbreak began in Wuhan, China.

That means there’s still so much health officials don’t know about this new coronavirus. Based on the reported cases so far, they’ve determined people over 60 and people with underlying medical conditions — such as heart and lung disease and diabetes — are at a higher risk of becoming severely ill from it, Dunn said. Both people diagnosed in Utah are over the age of 60.

In a press conference Tuesday, Dunn recommended those over 60 to be "extra cautious" and possibly reconsider going to any large gatherings or traveling to any place they’d be around a lot of people.

"For those who are less than 60, we really want the public to understand that if they are sick, they shouldn’t be visiting those in the older age group," she added. "We really need to protect our older folks."

If I have asthma, am I at high risk for death?

Again, it’s still hard to know yet. That said, people with underlying conditions seem to be at a higher risk, according to Dunn. She notes that heart and lung diseases "seem to be some of the comorbid factors."

"Individuals with underlying medical conditions such as asthma or other lung disease are at greater risk for developing severe symptoms of COVID-19," she said.

More information about underlying medical conditions and COVID-19 can be found here.

Do we know how long the virus can survive on surfaces?

This remains unclear, according to the CDC. However, the World Health Organization says other coronaviruses can last on surfaces for a few hours up to a few days.

“That’s why good hand hygiene is really important because you’re touching surfaces all the time that have a variety of germs on them,” Dunn said, during Tuesday’s press conference. “It’s important for all of us to use really good hand hygiene throughout this outbreak — and in general — in order to prevent us from getting sick.”

My parents just got back from Seattle, Washington, and Oregon Coast trip. Should I keep my 9-month son away from them? And how long?

Washington, of course, is where the worst outbreak has occurred. As of Tuesday night, the state reported 269 cases and 25 deaths, according to KIRO in Seattle. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also announced Tuesday that he was ordering a ban of gatherings with more than 250 people.

As for this question, COVID-19 hasn’t seemed to impact children as severely as adults, and especially adults over 60, Dunn said.

"If your parents are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath, they need to call their healthcare provider and explain their symptoms and travel history," she added. "Their provider will determine if they need to be tested and their best course of care for them and your family."

How long should I plan to postpone travel? I have a cruise planned for mid-May. Should I think about canceling?

The Utah Department of Health points out that the CDC recommends travelers, especially anyone with underlying health issues, to reconsider any worldwide cruise ship travel. More information about the CDC’s travel recommendations can be found here.

If you have questions about the new coronavirus, please submit them to the Google response form below for future installments.

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