What We Know About Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

What We Know About Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

What is it?

The term coronavirus was introduced in 1968 by a group of scientists looking at the structure of a virus that was causing an avian infectious bronchitis at the time (Merriam-Webster, 2020).  The unique appearance of the virus under the microscope gave the virus its name, as it looked like the solar corona according to the virologists, with rounded particles that have petal or round shaped projections. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] (2020) reports that coronaviruses are fairly common in people and animals, including bats, cats, and cattle.  The common cold, a mostly self-limited condition causing mild illness in otherwise healthy adults and children, is one known disease that may be caused by a human coronavirus.  Occasionally, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread person-to-person, which happened previously with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-CoV (SARS-CoV) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-CoV (MERS-CoV), and now appears to have happened again with SARS-CoV-2 resulting in the disease now known as COVID-19.  SARS-CoV-2 is a Betacoronavirus that is genetically similar to two SARS-like coronaviruses that originated from bats leading researchers to believe SARS-CoV-2 may have originated with bats (del Rio & Malani, 2020).

COVID-19 is a disease that causes respiratory illness.  The virus responsible for the illness, SARS-CoV-2, is a novel coronavirus, one not ever seen before.  It was discovered originally in China and has been identified in at least 60 other locations internationally, including the United States.  It will most likely be identified in other countries as the outbreak expands throughout the world.

How is it transmitted?

At this stage of the outbreak and because COVID-19 is a new disease, there is only information about transmission available from the previous similar coronavirus outbreaks and what was learned about their potential to spread.  The main method of spreading this virus is from person-to person.  Being within 6 feet from an infected individual and through respiratory droplets created by coughing and sneezing by the infected person are the two primary ways that the virus is transmitted from one person to another.  The respiratory droplets can move to the healthy individuals’ mouth or nose and then be inhaled into the lungs.  It is also possible that contact with surfaces or objects that have been infected with the virus could lead to spreading the virus if the healthy individual touches their own eyes, mouth, and/or nose but there is not enough good data right now showing how long the virus lives on these surfaces.

The incubation period, which is that time when an individual is infected but shows no signs of the disease, is thought to be from 2-14 days, but could be as long as 24 days (del Rio & Malani, 2020).  It is possible for this virus to spread before symptoms develop; however, infected persons are most contagious when they are the most symptomatic and sickest.  SARS-CoV-2 seems to be spreading easily, making it highly contagious, with some “community spread” occurring in various geographic areas.  This “community spread” means that the infected individual has no known contact with another infected person and does not know when or how they became infected with the virus.  The CDC (2020) reports sustained and ongoing transmission continues in China, Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of the disease have ranged from mild to severe in affected individuals.  The primary symptoms are fever, cough, and difficulty with breathing, including shortness of breath.  Del Rio and Malani (2020) report the following percentages of clinical presentation symptoms in diagnosed patients:  83-98% with fever, 76-82% with dry cough, and 11-44% with fatigue or myalgias.  Occasional other symptoms such as sore throat, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and headache have been reported but at low frequency.  The course of the illness appears to be fairly mild and benign for younger healthier adults who have no pre-existing health concerns such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension; however, there is no clinical evidence so far that clearly defines how the disease moves from mild to severe and what the risk factors are that clarify progression of disease and mortality.

How do we prevent the spread?

Currently, there is no vaccine available against SARS-CoV-2.  Avoiding contact with the virus is the best way to prevent spread of COVID-19.  The CDC (2020) recommends good handwashing for at least 20 seconds after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, and sneezing.  The use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is recommended if soap and water are not available but handwashing with soap and water is superior and recommended.  Stay home from work and school if you are sick and avoid contact with sick individuals.  Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth and cover your cough with a tissue.  Use disinfectant to clean surfaces and objects you touch frequently.  Use of a facemask is recommended for people who are ill to prevent spread of the disease and for healthcare workers caring for the ill.  Facemasks are not recommended for healthy, well individuals outside of healthcare institutions to prevent spread of the virus.

What do you do if you become ill?

If you develop a fever or symptoms of respiratory illness, contact your health care provider by phone for instructions on how to proceed.  Stay home unless you need emergency medical care.  This means no activities outside your home including work, school, or public transportation.  Try to separate yourself from others in your home, including using a separate bathroom.  Limit contact with your pets and other animals.  Wear a facemask if possible and cover any coughs and sneezes.  Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.  Avoid sharing glasses, plates, utensils, towels, or bedding with other family members when you are ill.  Clean all household surfaces used frequently with disinfectant.  Remain in home isolation until you have spoken with your health care provider and determined the risk of secondary transmission to others is thought to be low.  If you need emergency care, notify the emergency personnel that you are being evaluated for COVID-19 and wear a facemask to prevent transmission to others.

Additional Information

For further information about COVID-19 and to remain current on the latest information about the outbreak, please visit the following websites:

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