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35 of the most commonly asked questions about coronavirus, answered by experts

- March 14, 2020 14 MIN READ
Photo: AdobeStock

 

NSW Health as produced an excellent guide to all you need to know about coronavirus in a frequently asked questions compilation you’ll find here.

On Saturday, NSW Health authorities said another 20 people had been diagnosed with the virus, taking the total in the state to 112. There are now 233 nationally, most notably Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who was found to have COVID-19 on Friday.

We’ve taken key questions and answers from the NSW Health list and reprinted them here. These answers were the best current medical advice on March 14.

The full FAQ is here.

 

1. What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause illness in humans and others cause illness in animals, such as bats, camels, and civets. Human coronaviruses generally cause mild illness, such as the common cold.

Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve to infect and spread among humans, causing severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which emerged in 2012.

 

2. What is the COVID-19 virus?

COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. It was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, where it has caused a large and ongoing outbreak. It has since spread more widely in China. Cases have since been identified in several other countries. The COVID-19 virus is closely related to a bat coronavirus.

There is much more to learn about how COVID-19 is spread, its severity, and other features associated with the virus; epidemiological and clinical investigations are ongoing.

Outbreaks of new coronavirus infections among people are always a public health concern. The situation is evolving rapidly.

 

3. How is the virus spread?

Human coronaviruses are spread from someone infected with COVID-19 virus to other close contacts with that person through contaminated droplets spread by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands, surfaces or objects.

The time between when a person is exposed to the virus and when symptoms first appear is typically 5 to 6 days, although may range from 2 to 14 days. For this reason, people who might have been in contact with a confirmed case are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

Most COVID-19 cases appear to be spread from people who have symptoms. A small number of people may have been infectious before their symptoms developed.

 

4. How long does COVID-19 last on surfaces?

According to the World Health Organization, it is not certain how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces, but it seems to behave like other coronaviruses. Studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions (e.g. type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment).

If you think a surface may be infected, clean it with a common household disinfectant to kill the virus and protect yourself and others. Clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.

 

5. What are the symptoms?

Patients may have fever, cough, runny nose, shortness of breath and other symptoms.

In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia with severe acute respiratory distress.

 

6. What is the difference between COVID-19 and the flu?

The first symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza (flu) infections are often very similar. They both cause fever and similar respiratory symptoms, which can then range from mild through to severe disease, and sometimes can be fatal.

Both viruses are also transmitted in the same way, by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with hands, surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus. As a result, the same public health measures, such as hand hygiene (hand washing), good respiratory etiquette (coughing into your elbow or into a tissue and immediately disposing of the tissue) and good household cleaning are important actions to prevent both infections.

The speed of transmission is an important difference between the two viruses. Influenza typically has a shorter incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) than COVID-19. This means that influenza can spread faster than COVID-19.

While the range of symptoms for the two viruses is similar, the fraction with severe disease appears to be higher for COVID-19. While most people have mild symptoms, approximately 15% of people have severe infections and 5% require intensive care in a hospital ICU. The proportions of severe and critical COVID-19 infections are higher than for influenza infections.

 

7. I have travelled to a higher risk country. What should I do?

For a list of higher risk countries, refer to Department of Health – COVID-19: Countries and regions considered to pose a risk of transmission.

If you have been in, departed from, or transited through a higher risk country in the last 14 days, you should:

  • self isolate yourself from others for 14 days from the day you departed the affected country
    and
  • monitor yourself for symptoms

If you develop a fever or respiratory symptoms, please:

  • call your doctor or healthdirect on 1800 022 222. When you call, tell them where you have travelled or if you have been in contact with a confirmed case.
    or (if your symptoms are severe)
  • visit your local Emergency Department. When you arrive, immediately tell staff where you have travelled or if you have been in contact with a confirmed case.

If you have symptoms it is important that don’t go to work, school/university/childcare, the gym, or public areas, and you should not use public transport, taxis, or ride-sharing services. If you need to seek medical care wear a surgical mask if available when attending. You should not use public transport, taxis, or ride-sharing services to get to your doctor or emergency department.

 

8. I have travelled to another country. What should I do?

The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is believed to be highest for those people who have travelled through a higher risk country. However, there are an increasing number of other countries at risk of COVID-19.

If you have travelled overseas to another country in the past 14 days you should self-monitor for symptoms, practice social distancing as much as possible and immediately isolate yourself if you become unwell.

Social distancing means separating yourself from other people as much as possible when you’re in public places, and avoiding crowded places. Practically, you should:

  • attempt to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between yourself and other
  • avoid crowds and mass gatherings where it is difficult to keep the appropriate distance away from others
  • avoid small gatherings in enclosed spaces, for example family celebrations
  • avoid shaking hands, hugging, or kissing other people
  • avoid visiting vulnerable people, such as those in aged care facilities or hospitals, infants, or people with compromised immune systems due to illness or medical treatment.

During the 14 days you are asked to practice social distancing, you can travel to work or school using public transport if you have no other way of travelling there. Please try to separate yourself from other passengers as much as possible

You should also:

  • maintain hand hygiene by regularly cleaning hands thoroughly with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub. Clean your hands:
    • before entering an area used by other people
    • after using the bathroom
    • after coughing or sneezing
    • before preparing food or eating.
  • practice good cough etiquette: cover your coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing (e.g. into elbow), dispose of used tissues, and clean your hands afterwards.

Social distancing is an effective measure, but it is recognised that it cannot be practised in all situations and the aim is to reduce potential for transmission. It is important that everyone does their part to limit spread of COVID-19. This will help protect vulnerable people in our community and reduce the burden on our hospitals.

If you develop a fever or respiratory symptoms, please:

  • call your doctor or healthdirect on 1800 022 222. When you call, tell them where you have travelled.
    or (if your symptoms are severe)
  • visit your local Emergency Department. When you arrive, immediately tell staff where you have travelled.

It is important if you have symptoms you should not go to work, school/university/childcare, the gym, or public areas, and you should not use public transport, taxis, or ride-sharing services. If you need to seek medical care wear a surgical mask if available when attending.

 

9. How long does the COVID-19 infection last?

The infection period for the virus will vary from person to person. Mild symptoms in an otherwise healthy individual may resolve over just a few days.  Similar to influenza, for an individual with other ongoing health issues, such as a respiratory condition, recovery may take weeks and in severe cases could be potentially fatal.

10. How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

Infection with COVID-19 is diagnosed by finding evidence of the virus in respiratory samples such as swabs from the back of the nose and throat or fluid from the lungs. Testing for COVID-19 is done in public health laboratories.

 

11. What should I do if I come into contact with a person with COVID-19?

If you have been identified as a contact of a person with confirmed COVID-19 infection in Australia, the local public health unit will contact you with advice. You need to isolate yourself at home for 14 days after contact with the infected person, and to monitor your health and report any symptoms.

Person to person spread of coronaviruses generally occurs between people who are close contacts with one another. A close contact is typically someone who has been face to face for at least 15 minutes, or been in the same closed space for at least 2 hours, with a person that was infectious. The public health unit will keep in touch with people who are close contacts of patients with COVID-19 infection. If any symptoms develop contacts must call the public health unit to report those symptoms.

If your contact with the person was less than this, there is a much smaller risk of you being infected. However, as a precaution you must still monitor your health until 14 days after you were last exposed to the infectious person. If you develop symptoms including a fever and/or respiratory signs, please call ahead to talk to a doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222. Tell your doctor that you have been in contact with someone with COVID-19. The doctor may tell you to attend your nearest emergency department – if so when you arrive, immediately tell staff you have had contact with someone with COVID-19.

More information about home isolation is available for:

Practice simple hygiene by:

  • making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub
  • cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow.

12. What should I do if I come into contact with a person who has been identified as a contact?

If you have been in contact with a person identified as a close contact of another person with confirmed COVID-19 infection, you do not need to self-isolate (although the close contact does) and don’t need take any other special precautions.

If a close contact develops symptoms and is confirmed as a COVID-19 case, public health authorities will determine who, if anyone, has been in close contact with them while they were infectious, and these people will be directed to self-isolate.

13. Who is at risk?

People who have:

  • been in contact with a person with COVID-19
  • visited or transited through a higher risk country in the previous 14 days

As there is increasing community transmission in a number of countries around the world, anyone who has travelled overseas in the past 14 days is at increased risk.

People with underlying illnesses that make them more vulnerable to respiratory disease, including those with diabetes, chronic lung disease, kidney failure, people with suppressed immune systems and older people are at a higher risk of serious disease.

14. How is it prevented?

  • Clean your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow
  • Avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.
  • Practice cough etiquette (keep away from other people, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and clean your hands.
  • Travellers to Asia should not visit live bird and animal markets, including ‘wet’ markets.

 

15. What if I am unable to speak to my doctor?

If you are after medical advice and your general practitioner is not able to speak with you, you can call healthdirect on 1800 022 222. They will be able to discuss your symptoms and travel history with you, to help decide if COVID-19 testing is recommended.

 

16. How do I get tested for COVID-19?

Testing can be ordered by your GP, or at a hospital emergency department.

 

17. What is the public health response to COVID-19?

Infection with COVID-19 is a notifiable condition under the NSW Public Health Act 2010, so doctors and pathology laboratories are required to notify NSW Health of all people suspected or confirmed to have the infection.

Public health unit staff will investigate all cases to find out how the infection occurred, identify other people at risk of infection, implement control measures and provide other advice.

 

Protecting against COVID-19

18. How can I protect myself/my family?

The best way to protect yourself is the same as you would against any respiratory infection. Practice good hygiene by:

  • making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub
  • cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow
  • avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.

Make sure you stay home if you are sick.

 

19. Do face masks protect against COVID-19? Which face masks?

Face masks are not recommended for the general population.

People who have symptoms and might be infected with COVID-19 are required to stay in isolation at home and should wear a surgical face mask when in the same room as another person and when seeking medical advice to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to anyone else.

Health care workers who are caring for patients with suspected COVID-19 should use appropriate personal protective equipment to protect themselves against COVID-19.

For more information refer to Clinical Excellence Commission (CEC) – Coronavirus COVID-19.

 

20. How do we know the people who have had COVID-19 are no longer infectious?

People with confirmed COVID-19 infection stay in isolation under the care of medical specialists until they are no longer experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Before they are released from isolation, they have tests to see if they still have COVID-19 and the specialist care team assesses they are no longer infectious. Once they are discharged they have a follow up assessment by the medical team to make sure they remain well.

Work, university, school and travel arrangements

21. I have a holiday/work trip. Should I cancel my trip?

The Australian Government provides up-to-date information and advice for safe travel overseas. If you are heading overseas to destinations which may have been affected, check the advice on Smart Traveller.

 

22. Can my child visit aged care facilities?

As children can spread a range of respiratory infections, such as influenza and RSV, with only mild symptoms, we recommend that aged care facilities do not have groups of children attend the facilities as we grapple with an early influenza season and potentially increasing spread of COVID-19.

Anyone who is sick, including children and even with minimal symptoms, should defer their visit until they are well.

 

23. Do I need a medical certificate clearing me for work, school, university or other settings?

No. If you do not have any symptoms there is no testing that can be done to predict whether or not you will become unwell. It is not possible to issue a ‘medical clearance certificate’.

Once 14 days have passed since you left a higher risk country, you have passed the time in which you would become sick if you were exposed to COVID-19 when you were in the affected country. If you are still completely well 14 days after you left the higher risk country then you will not get COVID-19 from your time in the affected country, and you can cease self-isolation and return to work, school and university.

 

24. Do I need to isolate myself if I have returned from holiday in a higher risk country?

If you have been in a higher risk country in the last 14 days (including transit), you should stay at home and isolate yourself for 14 days after you left the affected country. You should watch out for symptoms.

If you develop a fever, a cough, sore throat or shortness of breath within 14 days of travel to an affected area, you should:

  • Call your doctor or healthdirect on 1800 022 222. When you call, tell them where you have travelled or if you have been in contact with a confirmed case.
    or (if your symptoms are severe)
  • visit your local Emergency Department. When you arrive, immediately tell staff where you have travelled or if you have been in contact with a confirmed case.

It is important if you have symptoms you should not go to work, school/university/childcare, the gym, or public areas, and you should not use public transport, taxis, or ride-sharing services. If you need to seek medical care wear a surgical mask if available when attending.

 

25. If I am worried about having COVID-19, can I ask to get tested?

If you develop fever, cough, runny nose, shortness of breath and other symptoms and have travelled overseas in the 14 days before developing symptoms, you should see your GP or visit your local Emergency Department to be tested for COVID-19. If you are visiting your GP, please call ahead before seeing your doctor hand and tell them where you have travelled.

If you are become unwell with these symptoms without travel you should see your local GP and discuss your symptoms. There are other illnesses such as influenza that your GP may wish to test you for that can cause your symptoms.

 

26. My work is saying that I need to get tested for COVID-19 as I have travelled recently- what should I do?

There is no need for you to be tested unless you develop fever, cough, runny nose, and shortness of breath or other symptoms and have travelled overseas in the 14 days before developing symptoms. You should see your GP or visit your local Emergency Department to be tested for COVID-19. If you are visiting your GP, please call ahead beforehand and tell them where you have travelled. You should self-isolate and exclude yourself from work until your test result is available.

If you are become unwell with these symptoms without travel you should see your local GP and discuss your symptoms. There are other illnesses such as influenza that your GP may wish to test you for that can cause your symptoms.

 

Home Isolation

27. Do I need to be separate from other people in my home if I am isolating?

Yes. If you are sharing your home with others, you should stay in a different room from other people or be separated as much as possible. Wear a surgical mask when you are in the same room as another person, and when seeking medical care. Use a separate bathroom, if available.

Make sure that you do not share a room with people who are at risk of severe disease, such as elderly people and those who have heart, lung or kidney conditions, and diabetes.

Visitors who do not have an essential need to be in the home should not visit while you are isolating.

More information about home isolation is available for:

28. Someone in my household recently returned from a higher risk country or has been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and is self-isolating. Do I need to self-isolate too?

Other members of the household are not required to be isolated unless they have also:

  • been in or transited through a higher risk country in the last 14 days
  • been a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Make sure you maintain a safe distance from that person at all times but support them as much as possible to maintain their self-isolation.

 

29. How can I access groceries and medicines while in home isolation?

If you need groceries or medicines (including prescription medicines), ask a family member or friend (who is not in isolation) to deliver them to your home or shop for groceries online. To prevent infecting other people, make sure you wear a mask when receiving a delivery or have the groceries left at your door.

 

30. When someone has finished 14 days isolation, do they need to see their GP?

If you are well at the end of 14 days self-isolation, you can resume your normal lifestyle.

 

Social distancing

31. What is social distancing?

Social distancing is an effective measure, but it is recognised that it cannot be practised in all situations and the aim is to generally reduce potential for transmission.

While practising social distancing, people can travel to work (including public transport). For non-essential activities outside the workplace or attendance at schools, universities and childcare – social distancing includes:

  • avoiding crowds and mass gatherings where it is difficult to keep the appropriate distance away from others
  • avoiding small gatherings in enclosed spaces, for example family celebrations
  • attempting to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between themselves and other people where possible, for example when they are out and about in public place.
  • avoiding shaking hands, hugging, or kissing other people
  • avoiding visiting vulnerable people, such as those in aged care facilities or hospitals, infants, or people with compromised immune systems due to illness or medical treatment

32. Who should practice social distancing?

If you have travelled overseas to another country in the past 14 days you should self-monitor for symptoms, practice social distancing as much as possible and immediately isolate yourself if you become unwell. See the advice: I have travelled to another country. What should I do?.

Note that social distancing is not enough for people who have travelled to a higher risk country in the previous 14 days. These people need to self-isolate at home for 14 days from their last day of travel in the affected country. See the advice: I have travelled to a higher risk country. What should I do?.

 

Pets and animals

33. Can pets be infected with COVID-19?

While COVID-19 seems to have emerged from an animal source, it is now mainly spreading from person-to-person. There is no reason to think that any animals including pets in Australia might be a source of infection with this new virus. There have been no reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19 in Australia.

There is also no evidence that companion animals including pets can spread COVID-19. However, since animals can spread other diseases to people, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands after being around animals.

 

Pandemic

34. What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is an epidemic (infectious disease outbreak) that spreads on a global scale. Pandemics usually occur when a new infectious disease emerges that can spread rapidly around the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020. This COVID-19 pandemic is the first caused by a coronavirus. (WHO)

 

35. What does it mean that the WHO has declared a pandemic?

On 11 March WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The WHO used this declaration to call for urgent and aggressive action. They noted that this is a pandemic that can be controlled. Both China and the Republic of Korea have significantly declining outbreaks.

On 30 January, the WHO declared that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In the last two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 has increased substantially and the number of affected countries has tripled (WHO).

 

  • Read the full NSW Health FAQ here.