What is the coronavirus?

picture of tube with coronavirus (COVID-19)
Last updated Jan. 27, 2020. For more recent updates on the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, see our list of FAQs.

If you’ve been reading or watching the news recently, you have learned that a newly identified coronavirus strain has been spreading in China and has made its way to several other countries through travelers. As a result, this has prompted the U.S. to quarantine travelers returning from the epidemic zones in China to reduce the risk of further transmission in the country. 

The Wuhan coronavirus, or coronavirus (COVID-19), was named after Wuhan City, China, where this strain originated.  This is the newest example of an emerging infectious disease.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), coronaviruses can be as mild as the common cold or can be as deadly as the SARS coronavirus strain. If you were not in China during the initial outbreak period or you have not had close exposure to someone who has been infected with the new virus, be assured that you are highly unlikely to have this particular strain of coronavirus. At this point, there has been no sustained human-to-human secondary transmission in the U.S.

Other coronavirus strains occur in the U.S. year-round. Most people will get infected with one or more of the common human coronaviruses in their lifetime. There is no FDA-approved drug treatment for this virus.

What are the symptoms?

Most people with a coronavirus infection do not become seriously ill. The coronavirus is a kind of common virus that causes mild to moderate upper-respiratory infections. Like other respiratory viruses, strains of coronavirus increase transmission during the winter season.

Similar to the common cold, coronaviruses last for a short period and symptoms are typically not severe but include a runny nose, cough, sore throat, fever and malaise.

Those at highest risk of complications are children, the elderly, those with significant cardiac or pulmonary disease and those with a compromised immune system.

How does it spread?

Because the coronavirus is a respiratory virus, the most common method of transmission is through respiratory droplets and contact with surfaces contaminated with the virus. Contagion happens from person-to-person through coughing, sneezing, close personal contact or through touching contaminated surfaces.

How can I protect myself?

Although there are currently no vaccines available against the coronavirus infection, an important preventative step is to always get your annual flu vaccine. It’s not too late to get the flu vaccine given that the flu season typically extends into April or May each year in this area. It’s helpful when we can prevent other known viruses (like the flu) that can present symptoms similar to coronavirus strains.

There is no commercially available test for the Wuhan strain of coronavirus at this time. Testing of hospitalized patients at highest risk is done through the state lab and CDC.

According to CDC recommendations, you may be able to reduce your risk of infection by avoiding unnecessary travel; washing your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer; avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth; and avoiding contact with people who are ill.

If your symptoms are similar to those of the cold, you can reduce the chance of spread to others by staying home during the duration of your symptoms, avoiding close contact with others, covering your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing and frequently disinfecting nearby objects and surfaces.

Both the CDC and WHO recommend against non-essential travel to China at this time. A 14-day mandatory quarantine for travelers returning from China to the U.S. was imposed on February 3.

According to the CDC, the immediate health risk from Wuhan coronavirus to the general American public is considered very low at this time.

Visit the CDC website for up-to-date information on the Wuhan coronavirus.