Last updated February 8, 2021
As scientists, we often find ourselves fielding questions about events in the news that may or may not be related to our area of expertise. Especially during the ongoing pandemic, it can often be difficult to share accurate information without either sparking panic or understating the severity. Nonetheless, we want to support our friends and family in times of uncertainty, and one way to do that is by sharing accurate information about scientific topics.
We’ve gathered answers to a few frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve received from family members. Have question we missed? Submit it in the comments and we’ll get back to you.
How do I know if I have COVID-19?
The three biggest symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath.
The symptoms of COVID-19 overlap with several things you may experience in winter and early spring, such as influenza and seasonal allergies. Allergies can be ruled out if you have a fever. COVID-19 results in a dry cough, so if you have a runny nose or a productive cough, it’s more likely to be influenza.
If you think you may have COVID-19, the best thing to do is talk to a medical professional, or get tested for COVID-19 if you have the means or opportunity.
I heard COVID-19 doesn’t kill as many people as the flu. Why are we so concerned?
The virus that causes COVID-19 is, in many ways, different from most viruses we’ve seen before. It’s very similar to SARS, but much more efficient at spreading – approximately twice as efficient as influenza. The global average fatality rate is much higher than influenza, but lower than other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. Additionally, new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have emerged in several countries, including the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. These variants have been shown to be more transmissible and potentially deadlier than the variant that has spread through most of the world up until this point. These variants are being closely studied, and the CDC will provide the most recent updates.
Many people who are infected require hospitalization, and those people sometimes experience Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. One of the biggest concerns, and the reason everyone is encouraged to practice social distancing, is the likelihood of overwhelming hospital systems. If the virus spreads too quickly, many areas could run out of hospital beds and ventilators. By isolating ourselves, we can slow down the spread and make sure our hospitals are able to handle the demand at any given time.
Can I get it from delivery food? What about packages in the mail?
According to the FDA and CDC, there’s currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food, so your sesame chicken and fried rice is safe. If you do order delivery food, you should minimize contact with the delivery person by paying and tipping online and requesting that the food be left on your doorstep.
Similarly, packages arriving at your door through the mail should be completely safe. The virus particles that cause COVID-19 can survive on cardboard for under 24 hours. Under ideal conditions, they could possibly survive up to 3 days on some types of plastic or stainless steel, but there is no cause to avoid mail.
Contracting COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your mouth or nose is very unlikely, but that doesn’t make sanitization any less important. Continue to thoroughly clean surfaces with frequent contact – light switches and doorknobs should be wiped down more often than usual.
Is it true that this disease comes from animals?
Coronaviruses often circulate in various animal species, and occasionally humans can become infected with a mutated strain. For example, MERS can be transmitted by dromedary camels. The exact animal origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are still being studied, but genetic analysis has indicated that it is closely related to coronaviruses that are known to infect bats.
Animals such as house cats and tigers have tested positive for COVID-19, but there is no evidence of transmission from pets to humans. The virus has also been found in large populations of minks, particularly in mink farms in several countries.
Can I still visit my elderly relatives?
It’s certainly risky to visit elderly relatives or anyone with lung problems or a weakened immune system. We’ve seen evidence that the virus can be transmitted before you show symptoms, so you could pass it on even if you feel perfectly fine.
However, social isolation is already a serious problem for many elderly individuals. It’s a great time to teach your elderly relatives how to use programs like FaceTime or Skype so that you can continue to spend time with them from a safe distance. Visits should be limited to dropping off necessities like food and medication. Maintain a safe distance (at least 6 feet) and, if possible, scrub your hands before entering. If you believe you’ve been exposed to the virus or you start showing symptoms, stop visiting immediately.
Should I cancel my vacation plans?
Unfortunately, we don’t know how long this will last. Regulations vary by geopolitical region, but CDC regularly updates its general safety guidelines. If you’re looking to travel, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t plan any travel without reviewing the cancellation policies and buying insurance if necessary
- Closely monitor your local conditions and regulations, as well as the conditions and regulations of any destination you’re considering
- Large events are likely to be canceled in most countries
- For the safety of your community, plan to self-isolate after returning from any long trip
How long is this going to last?
Unfortunately, we still don’t have a great answer to that. On the bright side, new developments could accelerate the end of the pandemic and a return to some semblance of ‘normal.’ Many countries have begun administering vaccines under emergency use authorizations. As of February 8, 2021, the United states has administered 42.4 million vaccines. Through continued safety measures and widespread vaccination, we can begin to overcome the challenges of COVID-19. It’s a challenging time, but the scientific community is coming together to find solutions that will make a positive difference.
For more information about COVID-19, explore these resources from the WHO and CDC:
Or check out our extended coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Testing for COVID-19: How it Works
- mRNA Vaccines for COVID-19: The Promises and Pitfalls
- Non-Respiratory Symptoms of COVID-19