As the Medical Director for Independence Blue Cross’s Medicare Advantage plans, I have always used my 30 years of practicing geriatrics as a guidepost for writing my blogs. I have woven my personal experience with various diseases and health care issues into every single thing I’ve written…until now. COVID-19 is the first disease I can say I have never managed, never even seen up close yet. So, like many of you, I continue to read and stay informed.
It is pretty hard to avoid being overwhelmed by COVID-19 news. It is all-encompassing. But as much as we may want to just put our heads in the sand to escape the stress our country is experiencing (I don’t know about you, but I have watched more movies/shows on Netflix in the past six months than ever before!), I do think it is worth summarizing what we know about the virus responsible for this pandemic. After all, people have received A LOT of information in a very short period of time.
The Five Most Important Things You Should Know About COVID-19
- COVID-19 is the disease caused by SARS-COv-2, a new coronavirus that first emerged in China in December 2019.
- COVID-19 symptoms can include cough, fever or chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, muscle or body aches, sore throat, newly lost sense of taste or smell, diarrhea, headache, new fatigue, nausea or vomiting, and congestion or runny nose.
- COVID-19 infections can be severe, and some cases have caused deaths. But most people who contract the disease will recover.
- The virus can be spread from person to person, mainly through tiny droplets in the air. It is diagnosed with a laboratory test.
- There is no vaccine yet, although many pharmaceutical companies are working diligently on developing one. Prevention involves frequent hand washing, coughing into the bend of your elbow, practicing social distancing and wearing a mask when outside your house, and staying home when you are sick.
What Is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is what we call the disease caused by SARS-COv-2, a newly identified virus that is part of the coronavirus family. There are many different kinds of coronaviruses, and some cause diseases — including SARS and MERS, which you may have heard about in the past.
How Is the New Coronavirus Spread?
Currently, scientists know that the virus is most frequently spread from person to person through droplets released into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes (of course, things like touching, kissing, standing close, or even breathing can also spread COVID-19). Larger droplets generally don’t travel more than a few feet, and fall to the ground or a surface in a few seconds. However, it now appears that smaller droplets can remain suspended in the air for many minutes, or even hours, and travel far from the source on air currents.
Transmission through the air is why physical distancing is so important in preventing spread of COVID-19. Wearing a mask is also crucial, because it greatly reduces the quantity of droplets that travel through the air when you exhale. And outdoor spaces seem to be much safer than indoor ones.
What Is the Incubation Period for COVID-19, and How Long Do You Stay Sick?
Most people who have been exposed to the virus develop symptoms within 4 – 5 days after exposure, though it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear.
Most people who don’t become seriously ill with COVID-19 will recover in 10 – 14 days. However, more serious cases have been known to last longer, and some people may have aftereffects for months.
Interestingly, perhaps as many as 50 percent of people who have been infected with the new coronavirus may have no symptoms at all. In many cases, they don’t even know they have the disease until someone else close to them tests positive, and then they are tested themselves. In the meantime, they have the potential to expose many others.
Who Is at Risk?
COVID-19 most commonly affects middle-aged and older adults, and 80 percent of deaths in the U.S. have occurred among people age 65 and older. But people of any age can become ill, especially if they have underlying health problems such as COPD, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, chronic liver or kidney disease, or weakened immune systems.
African Americans, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19; members of these populations should be especially careful to limit their risk as much as possible, and to seek testing and treatment quickly if they become ill.
How Is COVID-19 Diagnosed?
Diagnosis is difficult with only a physical exam because COVID-19’s symptoms can resemble those of the flu or a bad cold. A laboratory test is necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
It’s especially important to get a flu shot this year, by the way. By protecting yourself against the flu, it can not only help you avoid the stress of thinking you might be sick with COVID-19, but can also save healthcare resources that are needed to care for patients infected with the coronavirus.
How is COVID-19 Treated?
Currently we have no specific treatment for the disease. People who become sick with mild symptoms often can stay home and use the same remedies one would use for the flu or common cold. For severe cases, there may be additional options, including experimental drugs and therapeutics.
Is COVID-19 Fatal?
As of late September of 2020, there have been 961,273 global deaths attributed to COVID-19. However, approximately 21 million people have recovered from the illness. In the U.S., we have had nearly 200,000 deaths and approximately 6.8 million people who have recovered.
By way of comparison, the number of people who die from influenza in any given year is in the 20,000-60,000 range. We typically see a fatality rate of flu at 0.1 percent, whereas COVID-19’s fatality rate seems to be about 1 percent, so it’s 10 times deadlier!
What Should I Do if I Feel Sick?
Number one and most importantly, call your doctor. Number two, stay home unless you feel it is a medical emergency. Most people recover from COVID-19 at home.