There is almost unlimited information flying around about COVID-19 and sifting through it can be overwhelming. To reduce your anxiety and help you make informed choices we have created a guide to the best way to stay up-to-date about the disease’s spread including how to minimize personal risk, while helping to protect your loved ones and community.

Why is COVID-19 considered so dangerous?

COVID-19 is highly contagious and has a death rate as high as 15% for certain demographics. While initially some people dismissed it as “just like the flu,” there is currently no vaccine against coronavirus, unlike the flu. The death rate is also likely about ten times higher than influenza.

For comparison, the death rate in people 60-70 years old with influenza is less than 1%. The death rate for people age 60-70 who test positive for COVID-19 has been as high as 8% in some estimates. However, this number varies greatly by country and will change as more data emerges.

It is also dangerous because many people are carrying the virus and don’t realize it. Data from countries like South Korea and Iceland show that people younger than 30, the majority infected with COVID-19 have very mild or even no symptoms, but can still spread it to others. Anyone who contracts COVID-19 is thought to have an incubation period between five and ten days with no symptoms, but during which time that person is highly contagious. This is why quarantines and lockdowns are being implemented in some places.

How do I know if I’ve been exposed to COVID-19?

Unfortunately, one of the things that makes COVID-19 so contagious is that it can be very difficult to tell if one has been exposed. There can be a symptom-free incubation period of five days on average. As the disease progresses, many people still experience very mild symptoms like a cold or no symptoms at all.

Around the second week of the virus there can often be symptoms like a dry cough, fever, shortness of breath or fatigue but these might not manifest until after the long incubation period.

It is recommended that everyone behaves as though they have been exposed to COVID-19 to slow its spread.

Does being exposed mean I’m at high risk of developing dangerous complications?

Being exposed does not necessarily mean one is at high personal health risk. Risk of severe complications and/or death depend heavily on other factors.

People younger than 40 are not usually at high risk unless they are immunocompromised or have other underlying health issues. Underlying health issues that increase risk for people of all ages include diabetes (types 1 and 2), cardiovascular disease, asthma, COPD, being immunocompromised for any reason, a history of respiratory infections including bronchitis, high blood pressure and obesity. However, as more cases emerge it is clear COVID-19 can sometimes severely affect younger people as well, so seek medical attention for any symptoms like shortness of breath.

People under age 60 in very good health are less likely to have a high personal risk, but odds of progressive or critical issues are not zero. For people 60 and above, the risk of complications rises with age, especially for those with other underlying health issues

Smoking, vaping and air pollution increase the risks of suffering serious complications for people of all ages.

Where can I get information to stay up-to-date on accurate COVID-19 information?

COVID-19 information is changing rapidly. The best places to receive large-scale updates on the worldwide spread of COVID-19 are the World Health Organization (WHO), and for Americans the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC also has some local information, travel guidelines and updates as more information comes out.

For information about one’s specific health, calling a care provider is the best way to get information on what to do and what the current medical capacity is in one’s area.

How can I be tested for COVID-19?

Unfortunately there is a shortage of test kits and many people will not qualify for the test even if they have some symptoms. Having symptoms that may be severe, being older and being around a known case of COVID-19 will increase the chances one can get a test, but it will depend on availability.

The best way to find out if a test is available is to call the doctor—this way if there are no tests available one will not be around other people in a health care center but the medical system will still be alerted.

Medicare Part B will cover the cost of all COVID-19 tests administered after April 1, 2020 for those enrolled in Medicare. Some insurance companies are waiving the fees for the test as well. It is unclear if there will be other mandated government or private reimbursements for the tests as the time this article was written.

What does it mean to “self-quarantine” or social distance?

Many cities have called for self-quarantines on a wide scale. Self-quarantine is the best way to prevent the spread of the disease to the most vulnerable populations. 

Self-quarantine means practicing social distancing if you have to be in public for any reason, and only leaving the house to receive medical care. Ordering food to be left outside the door can help. In communities on lockdown one will only be able to leave the house to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy, receive medical care or go to work if one’s job is considered essential. Social distancing  for people who don’t believe they have been exposed means working from home if possible, but if this is not possible it means at the very least avoiding taking mass transit and trying to stay out of groups of 10 or more people.

If one is in a public place, wash hands before and after leaving, stand 6 ft away from others when possible, cover mouth when coughing or sneezing and avoid touching surfaces as much as possible. Sanitizing one’s phone and other personal belongings with Clorox wipes can keep them clean.

Face masks can help prevent people who are already sick from spreading droplets into the air. However, standard face masks are not protective against contracting the virus. N-95 face masks are protective, but there is a shortage of these masks as they are primarily being used by healthcare workers.

Alcohol-based cleaning products like hand sanitizer need to have at least 60% alcohol to be effective at killing the coronavirus. Clorox wipes can be used effectively on cell phones to clean them without damaging the phone.

What do I do if I’m experiencing mild symptoms?

Symptoms specific to COVID-19 include a dry cough, fever and shortness of breath. However, for many people milder symptoms that seem more similar to another cold or flu can exist. If experiencing mild symptoms, it’s recommended people call their primary care provider. For people who don’t have a doctor, call a clinic or urgent care center from home to avoid spreading COVID-19 at medical care centers.

COVID-19 has no direct treatment, so if one is experiencing symptoms, there is little to do to slow spread apart from practicing social distancing—staying home and recovering. Lots of rest and drinking lots of water can help with recovery. The WHO is recommending avoiding painkillers like Ibuprofen since they can slow immune response. More studies are needed about which anti-inflammatories, if any, are safe to take.

If one has to be in public, wash hands thoroughly, cough or sneeze into a tissue or flexed elbow, don’t touch anyone, avoid touching surfaces when possible, stand 6 ft away from others and consider wearing a face mask or other mouth covering.

It’s important to take self-quarantine guidelines very seriously, especially if living in an area that has instituted a lockdown. Avoid groups of 10 or more people, avoid standing within 6 ft of others because the virus can spread via air droplets and wash hands before and after touching surfaces.

A sick person wearing a standard face mask can slow some of the spread to others, but face masks are not protective against breathing it in. N-95 face masks are the only types that are truly protective. 

What do I do if I’m experiencing severe symptoms?

There is no cure for coronavirus, but treatments for severe symptoms like difficulty breathing may be available. Calling the doctor when experiencing symptoms is the best way to get good medical advice and avoid overburdening the medical system.

Symptoms that likely require medical attention include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing or high fever that lasts more than three days. The best way to get appropriate medical care is to call a doctor and to ask what type of medical setting to go to—this could be a routine visit, urgent care or in some cases the emergency room. If experiencing severe shortness of breath call 911.