By David J. Herman, M.D.
As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have questions about the virus, which has touched communities near and far, including here in Central New Jersey.
Doctors and scientists around the globe are working nonstop to learn as much as they can about COVID-19, and while there is still much they don’t know, a lot is known.
Q. What is COVID-19 and how does it spread?
A. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person-to-person in a fashion similar to that of other respiratory viruses. You can get the virus from inhaling particles sprayed into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, especially if you are within six feet of an infected person. You can also get the virus from touching a surface that an infected person coughed or sneezed on and then transferring the virus to your body by touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
Q. What are the symptoms?
A. Symptoms of the virus can be very similar to other seasonal respiratory infections like colds and influenza. Most commonly these include fever, muscle aches, cough and difficulty breathing. Most people with COVID-19 have only mild flu-like and respiratory symptoms, which can be managed at home. However, some people may develop severe pneumonia and breathing problems that require hospitalization. Some people may experience diarrhea. Another common symptom is loss of taste, though loss of taste may occur with other viral infections as well.
Q. How is COVID-19 different from the flu?
A. Though both are respiratory viruses causing similar symptoms, COVID-19 is far more lethal than the flu. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, as of April 6, an estimated 5.5% of reported COVID-19 cases globally had died. In the United States, an estimated 4% of patients with COVID-19 infection have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills about 0.1% of those infected.
Q. Am I at risk?
A. At this time, COVID-19 is widespread throughout many communities within the United States. You may be particularly at risk for getting the virus if you have traveled to an area with widespread transmission or live in an area of the country with a particularly high number of cases. You should discuss with your primary care doctor if you are concerned about exposure to people with known COVID-19 infection, or if you have symptoms such as fever and cough or shortness of breath.
Older adults (especially over age 60) and those with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and lung disease are at highest risk for getting pneumonia and requiring hospitalization from COVID-19. Patients with conditions that result in weak immune systems (from steroids, cancer drugs, HIV, organ or bone marrow transplants, etc.) may also be more susceptible to developing serious complications of infection.
It is not known if pregnant women are at higher risk of problems from COVID-19; however, it is always important for pregnant women to protect themselves from illnesses.
Q. How can I stay safe and keep my family safe?
A. At present, there are no available vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infection, or treatments to cure this infection. However, research and clinical trials are being done to create a vaccine and study possible drugs that have activity against the virus.
The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus by following these guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Stay home as much as possible.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
• Practice social distancing: Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Stay at least six feet away from other people.
• Clean and disinfect high-touch objects and surfaces (counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets and bedside tables, light switches) using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
• 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. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
• Wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Face coverings serve more to prevent people from spreading the virus to other people than from protecting the wearer from acquiring infection.
Q. I feel fine, why do I need to stay home?
A. Infected people can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms, which means you could be spreading the virus without even knowing it.
To slow the spread and protect the capacity for New Jersey’s healthcare system for the state’s most vulnerable, the state has directed all residents to stay home until further notice. The order provides for certain exceptions, such as:
• Obtaining essential goods or services,
• Seeking medical attention,
• Visiting family or close friends (should only be done if essential),
• Reporting to work, and
• Engaging in outdoor activities.
In addition, all gatherings of individuals, such as parties, celebrations, or other social events, unless otherwise authorized, are prohibited. When in public, individuals must practice social distancing and stay at least six feet apart whenever possible, excluding immediate family members, caretakers, household members, or romantic partners. Individuals must use a face covering when shopping at essential retail businesses, entering a restaurant or bar to pick up takeout orders, and when traveling on train, bus, light rail or paratransit vehicle.
Q. What should I do if I develop symptoms?
A. Stay home and call your healthcare provider. They will help decide if you need further evaluation or testing. If you are not sick enough to be hospitalized, you can recover at home and avoid exposing or infecting others.
Call 911 if you develop these signs:
• Difficulty breathing
• Lasting pain or pressure in the chest
• New confusion or failure to stay awake
• Bluish lips or face
As the effects of COVID-19 are felt throughout Central Jersey, Penn Medicine Princeton Health remains committed to providing high-quality, comprehensive care to the community 24/7. To learn more, visit www.princetonhcs.org.
David J. Herman, MD, is board certified in infectious disease and internal medicine. He is the chairman of the Infectious Diseases Committee at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.