Your coronavirus questions, answered: What families and caregivers need to know

March 31, 2020

We’re currently facing a novel coronavirus pandemic that’s continuing to rapidly spread across the U.S. and the world. As of Tuesday, March 31, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) clocked the total number of cases in the U.S. at 163,539, including 2,860 deaths.

The CDC advised that person-to-person spread of the virus in the U.S. is likely to continue — and that more cases are expected to be identified in the coming days.

If you are a parent or caregiver and suspect you may be sick, please note the following advice:

  • Parents: If you, your child or anyone in your household are sick, do not schedule child care and do cancel any child care (with pay if possible) that you have previously scheduled. 

  • Nannies, babysitters, caregivers: Stay home and do not care for children. 

Here, experts weigh in on the most frequently asked coronavirus questions and what you can do to best protect yourself and your loved ones. 

Read more: Full COVID-19 coverage

What is coronavirus and COVID-19?

According to the CDC, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses common to many species of animals, such as camels, cattle, cats and bats. In rare cases, these viruses can jump to and spread among humans, such as with MERS and SARS. The current coronavirus — also referred to as a novel (new) coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2 — was first detected in 2019, in Wuhan City in the Hubei Province of China. It has since been detected in travelers, as well as confirmed in people without known exposure to the region or other known patients.

The name of the illness caused by SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, short for “coronavirus disease 2019.” 

“Since this virus is in the family of viruses that cause the common cold, it’s likely that healthy children and adults will resolve the illness on their own and recover without any problems,” notes Dr. Rodney Rohde, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) Program and Associate Dean for Research for the College of Health Professions at Texas State University. 

How is coronavirus transmitted? 

“The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person — between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” says Dr. Amy Fuller, DNP, WHNP-BC, MSN, RN, director of Endicott College's family nurse practitioner master's degree program. “These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. The virus is also spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects.”

In short, it’s transmitted via the respiratory route like a cold or flu, notes Rohde.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding: The CDC states that it’s still unknown whether a pregnant woman with COVID-19 can transmit coronavirus to her fetus or newborn. However, in the limited recent case series of infants born to mothers with COVID-19 published in the peer-reviewed literature, none of the infants have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Additionally, virus was not detected in samples of amniotic fluid or breast milk.

What are the symptoms?

While we’re still learning specifics about how the disease will present, Rohde says that judging from positive cases, the main symptoms include:

  • Fever.

  • Cough. 

  • Shortness of breath. 

By comparison, the flu is more likely to cause fever/a feverish feeling, headache, muscle and body aches, fatigue, cough, sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose, he notes. Cases can range from mild to severe, and shortness of breath may indicate a more serious form of the illness. 

Symptoms may present anywhere from 2-14 days following exposure, according to the CDC.

What are the symptoms in kids specifically?

Limited reports of children with COVID-19 in China have described mild, cold-like symptoms, such as fever, runny nose and cough, the CDC notes. At least one child exhibited gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea). Although severe complications (acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock) have been reported, they appear to be uncommon.

Who is most at risk?

The CDC says that while infections in children, including very young children, have been reported, there is no evidence that they are more susceptible, and most confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported from China have occurred in adults.

According to the CDC’s most current risk assessment, the immediate health risk for the general American public is considered low. The risks, however, are growing/higher in the following communities:

  • People in communities where ongoing community spread with the virus that causes COVID-19 has been reported are at elevated — though still relatively low — risk of exposure. 

  • Health care workers caring for patients with COVID-19 are at elevated risk of exposure. 

  • People who are close contacts of someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 are at elevated risk. 

  • Travelers returning from affected international locations where community spread is occurring. The US government has also instituted travel restrictions to a number of countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19, including China, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran, but the level of risk in each country will vary day to day while more information is gathered. For an updated list of risk assessments and travel restrictions, visit the CDC website.

  • The immunocompromised — like nursing homes, elderly, cancer or COPD patients, etc. — have a higher risk, adds Rohde. “The risk can go up in elderly people with diabetes, high blood pressure and COPD,” he says.

  • Pregnant women experience immunologic and physiologic changes which might make them more susceptible to viral respiratory infections, including COVID-19.

What precautions should I take?

“The single most important thing one can do to avoid this virus is hand-washing and hand hygiene,” notes Rohde. “Hand-washing is always an effective tool to prevent coming into contact with any microbial agent. Be an example to your children, teaching them how to wash their hands, as well.” 

Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers are flying off the shelves, and the CDC advises using them when soap and water aren’t readily available, it’s best to wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

At the same time, Rohde urges avoiding “high-touch” surfaces — other people (handshaking), handrails, etc. — when possible, as well as contact with those who are ill (or appear ill) with respiratory illness, travel to high infection areas abroad or domestic, nursing homes or other health care areas where high risk may be found unless you need to obtain assistance. 

The CDC recommends avoiding close contact (defined as within 6 feet or having direct contact like kissing or sharing utensils) with people who are sick.

Additional precautions: 

  • Stay home when you are sick with respiratory disease symptoms. At the present time, these symptoms are more likely due to influenza or other respiratory viruses than to COVID-19-related virus.

  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then throw it in the trash can.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60-95% alcohol.

  • Routinely clean frequently touched surfaces and objects

Another smart move: get the flu shot if you haven’t already. “Most health departments are also recommending that everyone be immunized against influenza, which won’t help directly with coronavirus, but it would probably be a good idea to not get hit with two significant respiratory diseases in close order,” says Dr. Douglas L. Krohn, M.D., a pediatrician with CareMount Medical, the largest independent multispecialty medical group in New York state.

What should I do if I think my child or I have been exposed to coronavirus?

Just as the numbers of individuals affected are changing rapidly, so too is the criteria for being tested. The latest from Krohn: “If you have cough OR fever and a known contact with someone with COVID-19 in the last two weeks, you should get tested,” he says. “If you have cough AND fever, and travel in the preceding two weeks to one of the high-risk areas — as of now, that would be China, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Iran, but that might change at any minute — you should get tested.”

Proceed for testing by first calling a local hospital emergency department, giving them the heads up about why you are coming over and then heading over in a manner that follows the instructions they have given you, Krohn says. “Your local medical practice will not have access to the testing kits and will have to direct you to the local emergency department,” he notes.

Read more: I’m a parent with COVID-19 symptoms: What should I do?

Additional recommendations from the CDC for when you are sick:

  • Restrict activities except for getting medical care. 

  • Don’t go to work or school. 

  • Don’t spend time in public areas or use public transportation.

  • As much as possible, stay away from people even in your own home, including using a separate bathroom. Try and avoid contact with pets or other animals, as well.

  • Wear a face mask, and cover your coughs and sneezes. Throw used tissues or face masks into lined trash cans. Wash hands vigorously and often for at least 20 seconds, using soap and water or use hand sanitizer containing 60-95% alcohol.

  • Avoid sharing personal household items, monitor your symptoms and clean surfaces daily.

Read more: When child care can’t be cancelled: How one doctor and nanny have adapted for coronavirus

Is there a vaccine?

While a vaccine is in development, at present, known medications are ineffective in preventing or treating COVID-19.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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