How To Talk To Your Friends And Family About The COVID-19 Pandemic

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 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.

I heard COVID-19 doesn’t kill as many people as the flu. Why are we so concerned?

On March 7, CDC estimated at least 22,000 people have died in the United States from influenza in the 2019-2020 flu season. COVID-19, on the other hand, had resulted in 8,727 deaths on March 18. It’s understandable to question why COVID-19 is receiving much more attention at the moment.

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.

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. At this point, the WHO states that the animal origins are unknown. Some reports have suggested that the virus originated in pangolins or bats.

It’s extremely unlikely you will be infected by an animal, including your pets. At this time, there is no reported evidence of transmission by pets.

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 summer plans?

Unfortunately, we don’t know how long this will last. There are theories that the virus will largely come and go with the seasons, but the current pandemic could potentially last many months. Current CDC recommendations say that all events over with 50 people should be canceled at least until mid-May, and the timeline will likely be revised as the pandemic progresses. 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 as well as the conditions at any destination you’re considering
  • If community spread is present, large events are likely to be canceled

How long is this going to last?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a great answer to that right now. This is a new virus that we’ve never dealt with before, so most projections are based on speculation. Social distancing and lockdowns in many countries could persist for quite a while as we deal with community spread, with some estimates as high as 18 months. We can be sure that it will be at least several months before life totally returns to normal around the world.

It’s not all bad news, though. Scientists around the world are doing great work to address the challenges presented by the pandemic. Companies such as Abbott Diagnostics and Co-Diagnostics are rapidly producing test kits, and there are vaccines and potential treatments in development and testing right now. 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:


Promega is prepared to support scientists in their work towards understanding SARS-CoV-2 and developing drugs to treat the infection. Click here for more information.

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After a detour through a Northwestern University cell bio lab and a degree in Biology/Neuroscience, Jordan found his passion in science writing. Primary interests include immunotherapy, circadian rhythms and developmental neuro. Fun fact: Jordan ran a satire newspaper for several years in college, though these days he mostly tells the truth in his writing. When he's not typing away, Jordan enjoys pottery and outdoor cooking. "If I say to you, 'Don't think about elephants,' what do you think about?" --Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Inception

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