Everything We Know About COVID-19 So Far, According To Experts
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a viral illness that can spread through person-to-person contact, mainly through respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There's a lot of information out there about the virus, but here's what we know so far.
What is COVID-19?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that generally lead to mild or moderate respiratory illness, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID). One specific strain of the virus family (SARS-CoV-2) causes COVID-19—the disease responsible for the global pandemic.
The disease was first discovered in China in December 2019 and was officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. At that point, there were more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people had lost their lives, according to a briefing from the WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D., MSc. As of June 2, 2020, there have been 6,194,533 cases confirmed globally and 376,320 deaths.
How does COVID-19 spread?
The virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is thought to spread from person to person through respiratory droplets, the CDC says. "These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs."
The spread is more likely to occur between people who are within six feet of one another. The virus may spread from asymptomatic people (more on that below), but symptomatic people seem to be the most contagious, the CDC says.
"It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes," they write. This is not thought to be the main cause of transmission, though.
COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness, and currently, there is no evidence that it can be transmitted through food. More research may be needed to reach a definite conclusion.
While there have been some cases of household pets contracting the virus, the CDC says transmission between humans and animals is far less common than human-to-human spread.
Recently, as the weather gets warmer, there has also been a lot of concern around mosquitos possibly carrying the virus. However, "at this time, CDC has no data to suggest that this new coronavirus or other similar coronaviruses are spread by mosquitoes or ticks," they write on their frequently asked questions page.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
The primary symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
While those symptoms have the most evidence of being connected to the virus, "This list is not all possible symptoms," the CDC says. "Other less common symptoms have been reported, including gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea."
A few cases of "COVID toes" have popped up in Spain, Italy, and the U.S. These painful purple or blue lesions have not officially been linked to the coronavirus, but anecdotal evidence suggests the symptom may be related.
"One possible explanation," Ebbing Lautenbach, M.D., MPH, MSCE, tells USA Today, "is that there is an inflammatory response more localized to a patient's foot and toes. Or it could be a clotting of blood vessels."
The virus is also being examined as a potential cause of strokes in younger, otherwise healthy individuals. More research needs to be done before these latter symptoms can officially be linked to the virus. Anyone with concerns should call their doctor and describe their symptoms.
How common is asymptomatic transmission?
During a WHO media briefing on Monday June 8, emerging disease specialist and WHO's technical consultant Maria Van Kerkhove, Ph.D. stated that COVID-19 transmission from asymptomatic cases was “very rare.”
"We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing,” she said. “They're following asymptomatic cases, they're following contacts and they're not finding secondary transmission onward. It is very rare, and much of that is not published in the literature.”
On Tuesday June 9, though, she back-tracked her statement. According to the New York Times, Kerkhove said her evidence was based only on a few studies. She added, the idea that asymptomatic spread was rare, globally, was a misunderstanding.
While COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets, the severity of asymptomatic transmission is still unknown. Until further evidence is revealed or experts suggest otherwise, it’s important to continue wearing masks and practice safe social distancing.
Why did this statement raise questions?
With evidence of asymptomatic cases, many experts worried infected people would unknowingly spread the virus to others. The risk of asymptomatic spread was one reason shelter-in-place orders were mandated, even to those who did not appear sick.
This is why Kerkhove’s statement—that asymptomatic spread is rare, and the focus should be on symptomatic cases—confused many people.
“Communicating preliminary data about key aspects of the coronavirus without much context can have tremendous negative impact on how the public and policymakers respond to the pandemic,” scientists wrote in a Harvard Global Health report.
Who is affected by the coronavirus?
Anyone can contract the virus, but certain populations are more vulnerable to the disease. While person-to-person transmission is the most common, some household pets may also be at low risk of contracting COVID-19. Those who are infected should practicing social distancing with both pets and humans to help prevent the spread.
Any adult over 60 years old, as well as people with underlying health conditions, like heart disease, asthma, diabetes, chronic lung disease, and HIV should take extra precautions. Additionally, the CDC says people with disabilities, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, racial and ethnic minority groups, and homeless populations are at higher risk of severe illness.
“The effects of COVID-19 on the health of racial and ethnic minority groups is still emerging; however, current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups,” the CDC says. Their report analyzing hospitalized COVID-19 patients from 14 U.S. states helps confirm this data.
Of the 14 states, approximately 59% of residents are white, 18% are black, and 14% are Hispanic, the report writes. “However, among 580 hospitalized COVID-19 patients with race/ethnicity data, approximately 45% were white, 33% were black, and 8% were Hispanic, suggesting that black populations might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”
These health inequities are influenced by economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic minorities than whites, the CDC says. Living, working, and underlying health conditions, as well as lower access to health care, are a few of those contributing factors. “Addressing the needs of vulnerable populations in emergencies includes improving day-to-day life and harnessing the strengths of these groups,” the CDC says.
What is social distancing?
Social distancing, or physical distancing, is the act of staying at least 6 feet away from others and avoiding group gatherings or crowded places. The CDC calls it "one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus and slowing its spread locally and across the country and world."
Aside from going to essential businesses, like grocery stores and pharmacies, it's generally advised to stay at home to avoid contact with others. That means only seeing people within the same household, and not "quaranteaming" with people outside of that household, and, in general, avoiding travel between two or more homes.
Everything to know about face masks.
While there are various symptoms indicating infection, it's also possible to be infected and show no signs (aka asymptomatic). "This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms," the CDC says. This is why it's so important for people to wear face masks, even if they don't think they're sick.
Though homemade masks may not always be effective at protecting healthy people, they can stop sick people from spreading infected droplets to those around them.
When to wear masks.
It's recommended (and in some states mandated) that masks be worn in crowded public settings—this can include busy sidewalks and running trails, as well as indoor businesses. Wearing a mask does not replace social distancing orders, though; it's still highly recommended to keep a 6-foot distance between others.
Where to get masks.
In order to maintain the supply of medical-grade personal protective equipment for health care workers, people at home are encouraged to make their own cloth coverings. This can be done with or without a sewing machine—they can even be made using just a T-shirt or a bandanna and hair ties. To make one at home, one study suggests using a combination of cotton and chiffon fabric, which were shown to have high filtering capabilities.
How to wear masks.
- Clean hands with soap and water.
- Determine which side is the front (usually the colored side is the front and should face out) and which side is the top (usually the bendable edge goes over the nose).
- Cover the mouth and nose with the mask, making sure there are no gaps between face and the mask.
- Avoid touching your face while wearing it, and wash your hands immediately if you do.
Once removed, it's critical to understand whether your mask is single-use or if it can safely be cleaned and worn again. While the CDC says how often you wash it depends on frequency of use, it may be best to clean your mask after each wear.
If the friction of your mask is causing skin irritation or acne, board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., suggests washing your face before and after wearing it and applying a healing ointment.
Best practices for keeping yourself and your home sanitary.
One of the best ways to stay safe is to practice good hand hygiene. This means washing your hands vigorously with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (or the length of the "Happy Birthday" song). While sometimes overlooked, drying your hands completely is an important step since microorganisms tend to cling to moisture.
For those without access to soap and water, using hand sanitizer is better than not cleaning them at all—just make sure the product contains at least 60% alcohol to maintain efficacy.
While there's no definitive data on how long the SARS-CoV-2 survives on fabrics and surfaces, the CDC says it "may remain viable for hours and days," and the "cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19...in households and community settings."
According to the CDC, items that should be washed or disinfected regularly include:
As of now, there has been no evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through food. However, according to immunologist Heather Moday, M.D., "One study in the New England Journal showed that the virus can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard and 72 on metal and plastic." Meaning, the bags or cans containing food may contribute to the spread.
- Unpack food or groceries outside and dispose of the bags in the outdoor garbage bin.
- Clean reusable grocery bags in the washing machine.
- Wash hands before and after handling food or grocery shopping.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that bags or boxes may have touched.
- Transfer food from to-go boxes to plates.
- Opt for contactless delivery.
- To be extra safe, wipe down cans or boxes with a disinfectant wipe.
Our best advice for staying healthy right now.
The most effective ways to stay protected and protect others, according to the CDC, include washing your hands frequently, avoiding close contact with others, wearing face masks, covering your face when coughing or sneezing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.
Since there's currently no treatment for COVID-19, maintaining a healthy immune system is critical right now (and always). A few ways to support the immune system include:
What is antibody testing?
Antibody tests are also called tests for past infections. They reveal antibodies in the blood, which can indicate whether someone has been infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).
The tests are not meant to diagnose COVID-19. Anyone showing symptoms and are concerned they may have the virus should take a viral test instead.
To take an antibody test:
- Call a healthcare provider
- Ask if they have available tests
- Discuss whether it’s necessary to take one
What are antibodies?
“Antibodies are proteins that help fight off infections and usually provide protection against getting that disease again (immunity),” the CDC explains. They are unique to each infection. “For example, measles antibody will protect a person who is exposed again to measles but will have no effect if the person is exposed to mumps.”
What do the results mean?
Positive: A positive antibody test may indicate a former COVID-19 infection. However, it could also indicate an infection from a similar virus (more information on the family of coronaviruses under What is COVID-19?).
“We do not know yet if having antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 can protect someone from getting infected again or, if they do, how long this protection might last,” the CDC writes. Meaning, even those who have previously been infected should continue to take necessary precautions to reduce the spread of the virus.
Negative: Negative test results may mean someone has not had COVID-19. It may also mean the person tested currently has COVID-19, and should consider getting a viral test instead. This happens because it usually takes one to three weeks for antibodies to develop, the CDC explains.
“Regardless of whether you test positive or negative, the results do not confirm whether or not you are able to spread the virus that causes COVID-19,” they write. Both positive and negative results should be discussed with a healthcare provider for further understanding.
Is there a vaccine?
There is currently no treatment for the novel coronavirus, but researchers are working to create a safe and effective vaccine.
How long will it take?
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) wrote "Vaccine development is a lengthy, expensive process. Attrition is high, and it typically takes multiple candidates and many years to produce a licensed vaccine."
Despite the fact that vaccines traditionally take years to develop, White House health advisor Anthony Fauci, M.D. says he thinks a COVID-19 vaccine could be developed in 12 to 18 months, reports CNBC.
But even if it is developed, Fauci said there's no guarantee it will be effective. “You can have everything you think that’s in place and you don’t induce the kind of immune response that turns out to be protective and durably protective,” he stated in a Senate hearing.
Are there any leads?
The Massachusetts biotechnology company Moderna, Inc. is developing a vaccine in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. On Monday May 18, they announced preliminary data about the vaccine indicates it is safe and able to produce an immune response against the virus, according to NPR.
The announcement was based off of the first eight human participants in the vaccine trial. Each received two doses of the vaccine in March. "Those people, healthy volunteers ages 18 to 55, made antibodies that were then tested in infected cells in the lab, and were able to stop the virus from replicating—the key requirement for an effective vaccine," The New York Times reported. Those antibody levels matched or surpassed the levels of patients who have already recovered from the virus.
The vaccine showed no side-effects aside from redness at the injection site, headache, fever and flu-like symptoms—none of which lasted more than a day, NPR reports.
While the results are optimistic, the vaccine is still in preliminary rounds of testing and will require more robust studies to prove that it works.
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting everyone, whether it's mentally, physically, economically, or a combination of the three.
Anyone healthy and looking for ways to give back right now can look to their local community and restaurants, which may be in need. They could also consider reaching out to the elderly population or helping victims of domestic violence.
"We will prevail through national unity and global solidarity," director-general Ghebreyesus said in a briefing on May 4. "The antidote to this virus is the human spirit."
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