How to protect yourself from coronavirus and understand the global context

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As novel coronavirus cases are reported in the Pittsburgh area, PublicSource has compiled the answers to key questions on how to reduce risk, recognize symptoms and understand how social distancing and proactive responses can slow its spread.

Click below for the following information:

This post will be intermittently updated as a public resource when new, credible and relevant information becomes available. If you have questions, suggestions on useful information, please email juliette@publicsource.org.


How can I best protect myself?

Proper hand washing for at least 20 seconds is the best way to protect yourself against the coronavirus, according to health officials.

How long is 20 seconds? Sing Happy Birthday (twice) or Baby Shark (halfway) – both should last the recommended time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] urges the public to engage in “social distancing” to help slow transmission. The CDC has said residents should avoid gatherings of 50 people or more, and on March 16, the White House said residents should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and to avoid restaurants and bars, which are closed for dine-in service in Pennsylvania.  

The CDC launched an online “self-checker” that allows individuals to answer questions and offers advice, including how to care for themselves at home.

To minimize exposure, health officials recommend:

  • Avoiding close contact with the sick.
  • Covering a cough or sneeze with a tissue or using the sleeve of your elbow.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Frequently disinfect surface areas.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers.
  • Avoid shaking hands.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • If you suspect that you have contracted the coronavirus and intend to visit the emergency department, an urgent care center or primary care physician, call ahead so healthcare workers can prepare.

According to officials, a healthy public does not need to wear surgical masks for protection. 

“We’d appreciate it if people didn’t hoard face masks,” Dr. Kristen Mertz, a medical epidemiologist with the Allegheny County Health Department.

Health officials also note that while social distancing is encouraged, residents should feel safe walking outside if they avoid congregating and employ recommended precautions.

Pennsylvania residents with health-related questions can contact the state hotline: 877-724-3258. Updates from the Allegheny County Health Department are available here.

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What are the most common symptoms of coronavirus?

According to the CDC, symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure and include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

The World Health Organizations and other researchers have also identified the following as potential symptoms of COVID-19:

  • Headache, sore throat, congestion
  • Chills and body aches
  • Sudden confusion
  • Diarrhea
  • Pink eye
  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Fatigue

Most at risk are the elderly, patients with an underlying medical condition and healthcare professionals who might come into contact with coronavirus patients.

Because coronavirus symptoms mimic the flu, local health officials urged the public to get a flu shot.

Since 2010, the flu has hospitalized more than 2.7 million Americans and caused 242,000 deaths, according to CDC estimates. While novel coronavirus and the flu have similar symptoms, health officials note that more drastic containment measures are needed to prevent large-scale illness and death from coronavirus.

According to data provided by the state health department on March 2, Pennsylvania has had 95,604 confirmed influenza cases. The seasonal flu in Allegheny County has hospitalized 127 and resulted in 12 deaths for the 2019-20 season. The height of the flu season is from October through February, tapering off by April.

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How many cases are there nationally and around the world?

The situation is changing rapidly, with new cases being reported in U.S. cities and across the world. The CDC updates the U.S. COVID-19 case numbers at noon Monday through Friday. For global statistics, the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University has a frequently updated COVID-19 dashboard (below). 

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How can I better understand how coronavirus is being handled globally?

STAT News published a March 11 story and helpful graphic about ‘flattening the curve,’ referring to what the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has said about slowing the number of people infected in order to reduce the burden on the healthcare system and reduce deaths.

On this site, last updated March 5, Stanford Health Care answers a list of frequently asked coronavirus questions. The site has information on the source of COVID-19, how it spreads and how best to protect yourself.

These visuals from Vox give important context on the spread of the coronavirus, its key symptoms and how the current pandemic is more serious than the seasonal flu. The visuals show its economic toll and how canceling large-scale events can slow its spread.

Al Jazeera published a March 7 story explaining how Taiwan has been so successful keeping its COVID-19 cases to a minimum in comparison to other nations, despite its close ties to China. The island acted quickly: By early February, Taiwan began rationing surgical masks, requiring a 14-day quarantine for those who had traveled to Hong Kong or Macao and issuing mobile alerts with the latest updates.

City living in the age of coronavirus anxiety doesn’t have to mean complete self-quarantine, as long as you understand the highest-risk places, people and activities. Should you avoid crowded trains and ride bike shares instead? Will keeping kids from school slow the spread? Wearing gloves? Should you be more worried about hard surfaces or soft ones, loud rooms or quiet ones? Find out how some cities may be flubbing the recommendations for how residents should respond.

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Nicole C. Brambila is the local government reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0072 or nicole@publicsource.org.

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