By: Pashko R. Camaj, Dr. Public Health

A contagious respiratory disease that was first detected in China in December 2019 has spread worldwide and is now a pandemic. The 2019 novel (new) coronavirus has been named SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes is called coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting most of the world. The extent of this outbreak is rapidly evolving and risk assessment changes daily, but here’s some important information on what we know about COVID-19 as of today:
What is a ‘novel’ coronavirus?
A coronavirus is family of viruses causing large set of illnesses, including the common cold and other respiratory infections. The term “novel” coronavirus means it’s a new form or strain of the virus.
Where and how did COVID-19 begin?
A cluster of severe pneumonia cases were reported on New Year’s Eve 2019 in Wuhan, which is in the Hubei Province of China. On January 9th, virologists and other public health researchers identified the strain as a novel coronavirus, which was tied to a specific “wet market” in the city of Wuhan, where they house and sell fish and other live animals. These markets have been known to transmit viruses before. It is culturally accepted practice that people see specific animals they’re buying be slaughtered in front of them, so they know they’re receiving the products they paid for. As a result of this practice and others, particles of infectious viruses or bacteria can be aerosolized and, in rare instances, jump from animals to people. It’s how SARS, another coronavirus outbreak, started in 2003.
How does the COVID-19 spread?
COVID-19 is easily transmissible and can spread from person to person even before a person develops symptoms. It’s carried on respiratory droplets when we talk, sneeze, and cough and these can land on surfaces or in someone’s mouth or nose. When it comes to respiratory droplets, 6 feet seems to be the magic distance. That’s how far these tiny, infected droplets can travel. Being within 6 feet of someone who is sick can get you or your personal space contaminated with COVID-19.
Another way of transmission and as important, the droplets can land on surfaces, can be picked with our hands and transferred to our eyes, mouth, and nose when we touch our faces. That is why the hand hygiene, and not touching our face with contaminated hands is so important! Good hand hygiene means washing our hands not just after we’re using the restroom or before we’re eating but regularly and often throughout the day. Respiratory secretions (like snot and sputum) can also be infectious, so cover your cough and sneeze, using disposable tissues, throw them away when you’re done, and wash your hands afterward. As important, keep your work surfaces clean and wipe off your workplace surface such as keyboards and your phones.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
COVID-19 typically causes flu-like symptoms. Some patients – particularly the elderly and those with other underlying and chronic health conditions – are ate a much higher risk of developing a severe form of pneumonia (infection of the lungs).
Patients develop symptoms like fever, muscle and body aches, cough, and sore throat about 5-6 days after infection. Most people will feel miserable for a week and get better on their own. Some people won’t get as sick, but it’s still important not to be out and about, so as not to spread the disease. A minority of patients will get worse instead of better. This usually happens after 5-7 days of illness and these patients will have more shortness of breath and worsening cough. If this happens, it’s time to contact your doctor again or even go to an emergency room. If you are experiencing these symptoms you need to contact your doctor or Hospital (emergency room), call first so they know you are coming and are ready to receive you!
What are the numbers telling us?
The numbers of people who have been diagnosed and how many have died are changing daily. But these numbers are just estimates; it’s still unclear how many people have actually been infected worldwide. Most of the deaths have been in adults over 60 years old who had other health concerns. It appears that only about 20% of people who contract this novel coronavirus need to be hospitalized. The other 80% get what feels like a bad cold and recover at home. A lot of this has to do with underlying medical conditions and our ability to fight off the infection-immunity.
People who are more vulnerable to any kind of infection – because of their age or chronic health conditions – are more at risk for getting seriously ill from COVID-19. This includes people who are smokers, who have hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes, people who have low immune systems, people with underlying lung disease or who take medicines to suppress their immune systems because they have some sort of autoimmune condition or cancer.
Is there a vaccine or medication that provide any protection against COVID-19?
Currently, there is no vaccine or medication to treat COVID-19. Scientists across the world are already working on a vaccine, and ongoing study trials suggest that there are some existing antiviral drugs that may be helpful for the sickest patients.
For now, doctors can only treat the symptoms, not the virus itself!
How can I protect myself and my family, should I wear a facemask?
The preventive actions for COVID-19 are like for other respiratory infections such as for cold and flu. This includes avoiding close contact with people who are sick; not touching your eyes, nose and mouth; washing your hands thoroughly and frequently; and cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces you encounter regularly.
The CDC does not recommend you wear a facemask to protect yourself from getting COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses. While it feels like it should be protective to have something physically blocking your face, for otherwise healthy people, it doesn’t work as well as we’d like to think it does. Air and germs can get around the sides of the mask. Masks are also very important in keeping our healthcare workers safe.
If you are living with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and is being quarantined, you need to stay separate from that person as much as possible. Additionally, be very careful about maintaining good hand washing and cleaning of high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and countertops. When you do need to be in the same room as the individual, wear a mask.
What is “community-based transmission” and why is it important?
Community-based transmission” of COVID-19 have been the primary concern of public health officials. Many of the initial travel alerts and the closures, and now closing of borders and specific areas are in order to contain the spread of a chain of transmission, reducing the spread from person to person. One way of doing this is also through a “social distancing” that can be used to slow spread of infections. This specifically refers to different ways of keeping people separated. Increasing the distance between and avoiding crowded public places are also crucial forms of distancing. This is a way we can all work together to spread ourselves out from other people and keep ourselves from spreading infection.
In closing, below is a summary of actions we should take to protect us and reduce the spread of the virus.
Practice good hygiene and social distancing. These are the most important
measures. START and MAINTAIN social distancing NOW. This is the most effective way to drastically slow the exponential spread of this virus.
If you are mildly ill, stay home, take the precautions you would for a common
flu. The vast majority of those infected have either very mild or no symptoms at all. However, YOU may still be CONTAGIOUS!
Stay away from the elderly, immunocompromised and those with chronic heart and lung conditions if you are ill. This is the group most at risk!
At this time, testing is still very limited and must be approved by the state. Currently, we are limited to testing only those who meet strict criteria (with state approval).
Please do not purchase N-95 masks or take them from medical facilities. If you are
not a medical provider, you do not need one. These are in limited supply, and health care providers will need them as the front-line providers.
There’s a lot of misinformation and things will change as this situation continues to evolve. Life will be different for a while. But, if we follow these basic precautions, we can manage this. Please do not incite panic and don’t listen to those who do. We will endure!