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Coronavirus: 22 answers to your most common questions

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. | Illustration by Henry Keller
COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. | Illustration by Henry Keller (KSAT)

The phrase “there are more questions than answers” applies to so many subjects that we try not to use it in news stories. With coronavirus, we get dozens of questions every day from our viewers every day in addition to those we have for medical professionals, our elected leaders, public safety officials and educators.

We try to get as many answers as possible and continue sharing them as we learn them. Here we share 20 of the most asked questions and some simple, factual answers. Some you may have heard before. Hopefully, some of them are new and the information is useful.

At the end of this page, there’s a form for you to submit your question and we’ll try to get the answer.

What’s the difference between the coronavirus and COVID-19?

Here is the explanation from the World Health Organization: Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and humans. “Novel coronavirus” means “new coronavirus.” The current novel, or new coronavirus, that has caused a global pandemic now has a name. The virus is called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2. The disease is called coronavirus disease or COVID-19.

Viruses, and the diseases they cause, often have different names. For example, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. People often know the name of a disease, such as measles, but not the name of the virus that causes it (rubeola).

How is the new coronavirus spread?

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can get into the mouths and noses of people nearby (within about 6 feet) or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. Some viruses spread more easily than others and the virus that causes COVID-19 “seems to be spreading easily and sustainably,” according to the CDC.

What should I do if I feel sick?

“A lot of people can stay home just like if you had the flu,” said Junda Woo, medical director for the San Antonio Metro Health District. Local hospitals are urging you not to go to the ER unless you’re in respiratory distress, and even then you should call ahead. If you have severe breathing problems, call 911. If you think you have COVID-19, your first call would be to your primary care physician. If you don’t have a doctor, you can call a nearby clinic and ask for instruction. Low-income individuals and families should seek care at a federally qualified health center including CommuniCare, CentroMed and University Health System clinics. Many of the cases of COVID-19 have been minor and it’s just a matter of managing the symptoms, which include fever and cough. It’s only the most severe cases that would need hospital treatment. There, an infected person would be treated with oxygen and possibly offered an experimental anti-viral medication.

How is a person tested for COVID-19?

Right now, only people who meet the testing criteria will be screened for the virus. That determination would be made by your doctor. So, if you’re concerned that you may have COVID-19, your first call would be to your doctor. Your doctor will collect a nasal sample with a nasopharyngeal swab, just like a flu test or send you to a facility where the test will be conducted.

What is social distancing?

Social distancing is a public health intervention in which people are encouraged to keep physical distance from others in order to slow the spread of illness. According to the CDC, social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 to 10 feet) from others when possible.

Why is COVID-19 worse than the flu?

Some of the most common symptoms of the new virus, like a fever and dry cough, are similar to the seasonal flu, but there are major differences in what COVID-19 does to a person’s body and those around them. The bottom line: COVID-19 spreads wider than the flu, has a mortality rate higher than the flu and can be spread by an asymptomatic carrier for much longer than the flu. Without treatments, vaccines or immunity, experts say the few options for humans to fight back is social distancing to mitigate the spread and reduce the overcrowding of hospitals, which can have catastrophic effects, as seen in Italy. This is not meant to downplay the flu, which kills thousands of people every year in the United States, but meant more to cut through the noise about the serious dangers of the new virus.

What does ‘flattening the curve’ mean?

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been growing larger every day, and the rate at which it’s growing has health experts concerned. If the trend continues this way, the United States could overwhelm the health care industry’s ability to care for infected individuals. In Italy, where the virus ran rampant over the past few weeks, doctors have been unable to give patients proper care, forcing tough decisions on how to use vital medical supplies and equipment to help treat those who are afflicted.

If enough people get sick in a short period of time, capacity would become an urgent crisis. An overwhelmed health care system would lead to preventable deaths and could wipe out larger portions of vulnerable populations, like the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. But this worst-case scenario can be prevented through social distancing, which means keeping people away from each other to help stem the spread of COVID-19. By closing schools and restricting public events and large gatherings, the virus will spread much slower.

Though slowing the spread of the virus extends its time, it would prevent flooding the health care system, which is a more urgent concern. By flattening the curve, or preventing hospitals from running out of beds, and freeing up supplies, more infected people can get treated and make a full recovery from COVID-19.

Does freezing or cooking food kill COVID-19?

The CDC says it’s still unclear how COVID-19 reacts to temperatures, however, other viruses and bacteria are not killed by freezing temperatures.

Viruses and bacteria are more sensitive to heat and should be killed by cooking food to proper temperatures on the stove, oven or in the microwave (70°C).

How could weather and temperatures affect COVID-19?

According to the World Health Organization, “there is no reason to believe that cold weather can kill” the virus and “from the evidence so far, the new coronavirus can be transmitted in ALL areas, including areas with hot and humid weather."

Can you get it from handling a package or mail from China or elsewhere?

Here is the latest answer from the CDC: “There is still a lot that is unknown about the newly emerged COVID-19 and how it spreads... In general, because of poor survivability of coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.

“Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods.”

How long can the virus last on surfaces?

According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can live for up to 72 hours on plastics, 48 hours on stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard, and 4 hours on copper. However, Carolyn Machamer, a professor of cell biology whose lab at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has studied the basic biology of coronaviruses for years, said the following about the study:

“What’s getting a lot of press and is presented out of context is that the virus can last on plastic for 72 hours—which sounds really scary. But what’s more important is the amount of the virus that remains. It’s less than 0.1% of the starting virus material. Infection is theoretically possible but unlikely at the levels remaining after a few days. You are more likely to catch the infection through the air if you are next to someone infected than off of a surface. Cleaning surfaces with disinfectant or soap is very effective because once the oily surface coat of the virus is disabled, there is no way the virus can infect a host cell. However, there cannot be an overabundance of caution. Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Machamer said.

Will taking ibuprofen for fever/pains/aches while you have COVID-19 worsen symptoms? The short answer is that there is no data to support that ibuprofen could worsen COVID-19 symptoms. France’s health ministry suggested on social media that popular anti-inflammatory painkillers could worsen the effects of COVID-19, but this warning was quickly questioned by major health agencies and regulators. The World Health Organization and other leading agencies now say there is no evidence to support the suggestion that ibuprofen might worsen the symptoms of COVID-19. According to Harvard Medical School, the concerns are based only on observations, not scientific studies, but added “since some doctors remain concerned about NSAIDs, it still seems prudent to choose acetaminophen first, with a total dose not exceeding 3,000 milligrams per day.”

If someone in the household gets sick, how can they prevent spreading the illness to others in the home?

The following information comes from Crystal Watson, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: “If you can have a separate space for the sick person—a space where they can access the restroom without traveling through commons spaces—that would be best. Those who are caring for loved ones who are sick at home should wash their hands frequently, avoid close contact as much as possible, and have the sick individual wear a surgical or procedure mask to prevent droplets spreading through the air. It is also important to clean frequent- or high-touch surfaces, as well to clean clothes in very hot water. Caregivers should also wear a mask, if possible. "If you’re not a caregiver, maintaining six feet of distance and washing your hands frequently are the main steps, along with cleaning surfaces often. If you are a caregiver, it’s certainly tougher. You should wear a mask if possible and follow the other guidelines of handwashing and cleaning clothes and surfaces frequently.”

Could a pneumonia vaccine help to prevent coronavirus infection?

The World Health Organization says while vaccines are important, the pneumococcal or flu vaccines will not provide protection against the new coronavirus.

Is there an increased risk for pregnant women or the baby she’s carrying?

The CDC says because COVID-19 is still a new disease, there is a lot that is unknown about it, including whether the disease can cause problems with pregnancies or if it can be passed to the fetus. “With viruses from the same family as COVID-19, and other viral respiratory infections, such as influenza, women have had a higher risk of developing severe illness. It is always important for pregnant women to protect themselves from illnesses.”

Can the new coronavirus be spread by mosquitos?

The World Health Organization says: “To date there has been no information nor evidence to suggest that the new coronavirus could be transmitted by mosquitoes.”

Can I catch COVID-19 from my pet?

The World Health Organization says: “While there has been one instance of a dog being infected in Hong Kong, to date, there is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit COVID-19. COVID-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. To protect yourself, clean your hands frequently and thoroughly. WHO continues to monitor the latest research on this and other COVID-19 topics and will update as new findings are available.”

Why are some grocery stores only allowing a certain number of people in at a time?

Walmarts and other large grocery chains are limited the number of people in their stores at any one time to enforce social distancing and comply with Mayor Lenny Curry’s order (later superseded by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide order) banning gatherings of more than 50 people. So employees at some stores are keeping people at the door -- hopefully spaced six feet apart -- and letting them in as others leave.

Is it safe to handle take-out orders and food deliveries?

The United States Department of Agriculture says “We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.”

To be as safe as possible, there are precautions you should take. One of the safest things you can do is limit the contact you have, or preferably not make any contact at all, with the delivery person during the hand-off. This means paying ahead of time, through the phone or through an app if possible. You can also request that the delivery person leave the package or the food outside your door. Once the food is inside your home, the next thing health experts advise is to take it out of the containers. Throw those containers away and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Health experts also say its best to have an area on your countertop to place the food, and wipe down that area with disinfectant. Health experts advise against grabbing the food with your hands. Try and use a utensil to move the food to one of your containers and then wash the utensil. If you have leftovers, it is best to transfer the food to your own container before putting it away. You never want to keep anything that came from the restaurant in your house. The ultimate goal is to make sure the food is not being transferred from packaging materials to your hands.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is currently no evidence to support that the virus can be transmitted through food itself. However, the National Institutes of Health reports the coronavirus can live on cardboard surfaces for 24 hours, stainless steel for two to three days and on plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours.

Can the COVID-19 virus spread through drinking water?/Is it safe to drink water from the sink?

The CDC says “The COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking water. Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.”

How much money will I get from the stimulus bill?

Congress officially passed a $2 trillion economic stimulus package to aid the economy, which has been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic. It is the largest in the country’s history and was signed by President Trump last week.

All U.S. residents are eligible as long as they have a work-eligible Social Security number and meet the income requirement.

The IRS will base the payments on a person’s adjusted gross income on his or her 2018 tax return, or their 2019 return if they have already filed.

All Americans with an adjusted gross income below $75,000 (or $150,000 for a married couple) would receive the full amount of $1,200 dollars per adult (or $2,400 for a married couple), plus $500 dollars per dependent child.

Americans who make between $75,000 and $99,000 (or married couples making between $150,000 and $198,000) are eligible for a portion of the payment.

Will I be ticketed if my driver’s license expires while all of the driver licensing offices are closed?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waived expiration dates for driver licenses as part of one of his first disaster declarations in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Certain rules relating to vehicle registration, parking placards for persons with disabilities, and titling are being temporarily waived as well.

Expirations for most other state-issued licenses have also been extended.

Thanks to our sister station, KSAT-TV in San Antonio, Texas, for contributing to this article.