There's no doubt that the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) sounds scary. When it comes to the risk of a national outbreak here in the U.S., experts stress the importance of being prepared. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease that originated in Wuhan, China.

By Nicole Harris
Updated June 04, 2020
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Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

Since late 2019, medical organizations worldwide have been tracking the spread of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. This respiratory illness began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, and so far it’s sickened more than 6,506,300 people and caused at least 384,900 deaths worldwide.

The coronavirus arrived in America through international travel, and there's been 1,861,262 confirmed cases—the most in the world—and 107,171 deaths in the U.S. so far.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus a “pandemic." On the same day, Trump restricted travel from 26 European countries—and he's since included the United Kingdom and Ireland in those restrictions—in an effort to slow the spread. This ban went into effect on Friday, March 13, at midnight, and it's planned to last for at least 30 days. 

School districts around the country have shut down, companies encouraged workers to telecommute, and thousands of Americans were asked to self-quarantine. Some states have also closed bars, restaurants, gyms, and malls, issued mandatory curfews, and on March 15, the CDC recommended canceling all events of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. President Trump has since released guidelines to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and has asked people to work from home when possible. After weeks of social distancing, however, Trump released guidelines on April 16 for "Opening Up America Again" in phases, starting as early as May in some places.

The government is taking more major steps because of the coronavirus disruption on Americans' lives: Trump signed into law a coronavirus relief package to provide free COVID-19 testing and paid emergency leave, and the tax filing deadline was moved from April 15 to July 15. The Senate also passed a $2 trillion emergency stimulus package that aims to help struggling families and small businesses.

Concerts, entertainment, and sporting events have all been canceled, and theme parks have been forced to shut their doors. The NBA and NHL postponed their regular seasons, the NCAA decided that their men's and women's basketball tournaments would be played without fans, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed, likely until 2021. Disney parks have closed until July, and even Broadway has gone dark amid the coronavirus concerns.

COVID-19 has caused widespread panic among parents—partly because its symptoms (cough, shortness of breath, and fever) are almost identical to influenza, says Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., biology professor and director of the microbiology research lab at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World.

Americans may be more likely to get the coronavirus depending where they live, even without known exposure, which is why social distancing is so important. If you do contract the coronavirus, however, you’ll likely recover without complications. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the global death rate is 3.4 percent—but many experts expect that number to decrease as we learn more about the disease.

Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus COVID-19. 

What is the Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are common among animals like bats, camels, and cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But seven varieties, called "zoonotic viruses," can be passed from animals to humans, and then from humans to other humans. These diseases often lead to respiratory symptoms that range from mild to severe.

The new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)—and the disease it causes, COVID-19—is novel (never seen before). Officials have traced the novel coronavirus back to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China. The CDC reported that COVID-19 is a betacoronavirus, which means it originated in bats. It may have spread to another animal before making its way to humans—but that information isn’t known yet. 

Two other novel strains have popped up in recent years. The first was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS or SARS-CoV), which had a 2002-2003 outbreak originating in China—probably from bats or cats. SARS had 8,000 probable cases and 774 deaths, according to the CDC. Thankfully, officials quickly eradicated the disease, and it hasn't shown up in recent years. The second novel coronavirus was Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV). This disease showed up in Saudi Arabia in 2012 (presumedly from camels) and sickened thousands of people, says Sharon Nachman, M.D., Director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital. 

While experts still need to conduct more research, they say the current COVID-19 coronavirus has similarities to both SARS and MERS.

Travellers family wear masks to avoid transmission of coronavirus upon arrival at Terminal 2 of Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France, on February 29, 2020. (Photo by Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How the Coronavirus Spreads

Officials have determined that the novel coronavirus likely has animal-to-human origins, but it’s spreading between people now. Most coronaviruses are contracted through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes, but it may be possible to catch COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. A March 2020 study from National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University scientists suggests that the coronavirus can survive for three hours in the air, four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard, and two to three days on stainless steel and plastic.

Along with the U.S., at least 177 countries have confirmed coronavirus cases. These include China, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, England, Germany, Singapore, Italy, Thailand, and Vietnam. Check out the CDC’s live global map for updated information. 

Coronavirus Symptoms in Kids and Adults

A definite incubation period for the coronavirus has yet to be determined. However, the CDC says that symptoms usually appear within 2 to 14 days of exposure to the virus. The coronavirus may look very similar to seasonal influenza, since both illnesses affect the respiratory tract. “The only way to differentiate is to do a clinical test,” explains Dr. Wahrman. 

According to the CDC, common coronavirus symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

The severity of symptoms will vary between individuals. Some people get severe respiratory distress that leads to death, while others have minimal side effects. On top of these symptoms, a recent study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that nearly half of COVID-19 patients may also experience digestive issues.

“Experts are trying to narrow down risk factors associated with this new coronavirus," says Kathleen DiCaprio, M.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus. She adds that "more severe cases seem to be in patients who are older and have pre-existing medical conditions."

How Dangerous is the Coronavirus?

Since COVID-19 is a new disease, people don’t have any antibodies to combat it, according to Dr. Nachman. “If you're exposed, you most likely will get the illness.” 

About 80.9 percent of people have mild symptoms. Around 13.8 percent have severe symptoms that require hospitalization, and 4.7 percent have critical symptoms that require intensive care. Severe cases of the coronavirus can cause respiratory distress and death, especially in older adults and those with compromised immune systems. The global death rate is estimated at 3.4 percent—but since people with mild cases might not get diagnosed, experts expect it to actually be much lower.

On March 18, the CDC issued a new report looking at the first cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. and found that while older patients are at a greater risk of dying and being hospitalized, nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were between ages 20 and 54. So while risk does increase with age, younger people are not immune. On top of that, the first infant death related to COVID-19 in the U.S. was reported in Illinois and a 6-week-old baby—the youngest known victim—in Connecticut died after testing positive.

However, parents might rest easier knowing that a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics of cases of the coronavirus in China for children 18 and under confirms what the WHO reported in February: The coronavirus doesn’t seem to impact babies and children as severely. Those that do contract the disease mostly have mild, cold-like symptoms (although severe complications are also possible).

Do Pregnant Women Need to Worry?

You may have heard reports about newborns who tested positive for the coronavirus. One was merely 30 hours old. Some hospitals have even banned visitors—including partners—during childbirth, though the rule was overturned in New York. Before you panic, though, realize there's no evidence that COVID-19 passes through the placenta. Indeed, preliminary research published in The Lancet found no evidence that the coronavirus transfers from mother to fetus during pregnancy.

One small study published in JAMA Pediatrics, however, suggests that infected mothers may pass the coronavirus onto their babies—three out of 33 newborns born at Wuhan Children's Hospital in China had signs of the virus, but their symptoms were mild—though it's unclear if that happens in the womb or during delivery.

There's also no evidence that the coronavirus affects expecting women more severely. Since pregnancy weakens the immune system and data is still limited, though, you should be extra diligent about the following the precautionary measures outlined below.

How to Prevent Coronavirus

Parents and children can prevent the coronavirus the same way they ward off other respiratory illnesses like the flu. The most important thing is getting the flu vaccine and maintaining proper hand hygiene. “Wash your hands appropriately with soap and water as needed, which reduces your risk of picking up germs that cause disease,” says Dr. Wahrman. It’s especially important to wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; Dr. DiCaprio recommends that kids sing "Happy Birthday" to hit the time mark.

Avoid contact with anyone exhibiting signs of illness. If you’re sick, the CDC recommends staying home. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and disinfect your home frequently.

Don't travel anywhere with coronavirus advisories, which includes most of Europe, China, South Korea, and Iran. And if you're most at risk for the disease (older adults and those with compromised immune systems), it's smart to avoid large crowds.

We asked experts to answer a few other prevention questions for parents, and here's what they had to say:

Is there a coronavirus vaccine?

There is currently no vaccine for the coronavirus. Medical experts are working on developing one, and they’re also seeing whether an existing vaccine could help with coronavirus, says Dr. DiCaprio. Since COVID-19 is not the same as SARS and SERS, though, experts need to start from scratch. 

“There are a couple of companies working on the vaccine,” says Dr. Wahrman. “Usually a vaccine can take up to or more than a year to develop. It won't be available this season, but if this becomes something of greater concern, then there are people working on it for the future.”

Should my child wear a face mask to prevent catching the coronavirus?

As of early April, the CDC has released new recommendations urging people and children 2 years old and up to wear face masks in an effort to help slow the virus, especially since it can be transmitted by those with no symptoms at all. While N95 respirators may protect against disease-causing droplets, those are critical and should be left for health care workers. Instead, it's recommended to use (or make) cloth face masks in areas where social distancing might be more difficult, like at grocery stores or pharmacies.

How is America dealing with the coronavirus?

WHO, CDC, and state health partners have learned from previous coronavirus outbreaks, and they’re taking every effort to control the disease. Here are a few steps that have been taken:

  • President Trump has released a plan to reopen America in three phases.
  • Medical organizations around the world have been working on vaccines, treatments, and testing options.
  • Most states, like New York, Tennessee, and Michigan, have closed all schools for the remained of the academic year. Many others have also shut down bars, restaurants, other nonessential businesses, and all gatherings of more than 10 people.
  • Millions of Americans across the country have been issued "stay-at-home" or "shelter in place" orders.
  • Certain areas implemented a curfew to all residents (for example, those living in Puerto Rico must stay home from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.).
  • Trump restricted travel to European countries to contain the spread of coronavirus.
  • The CDC advised that all travelers should avoid “nonessential travel” to China, South Korea, and Iran.
  • Officials have shut down colleges and offices across the country in an effort to combat the spread.
  • Thousands of Americans with potential exposure have been asked to self-quarantine.
  • Major sports leagues, including the NBA, NHL, and MLB, postponed or canceled their regular seasons. Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed.
  • Disney shut down its theme parks until July 11.
  • Drive- and walk-through testing sites are being set up around the country, and at-home tests could soon become available.
  • Several airlines have stopped service to some affected regions.
  • 2020 Democratic primary elections are being postponed in some states.
  • The CDC recommends the use of cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult.

What to Do If You Think You Have the Coronavirus

Do you have fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19? According to the CDC, you should contact a health care provider and inform them of these symptoms. They’ll decide if you need diagnostic testing for COVID-19.

There is currently no recommended treatment regime for the novel coronavirus. Your health care provider will inform you on next steps, but the CDC suggests treating the illness similarly to the flu. You should get lots of rest and fluids, take fever-reducing medication, and use a humidifier.

Comments (5)

January 31, 2020
Thanks for the article. An example of why parents should be concerned -- Currently Stony Brook's graduate housing -- Chapin Apartments -- have students from Wuhan in SHARED units. They have not been instructed by the university to isolate themselves nor be tested. Thank goodness some of the students have taken it upon themselves to be socially responsible enough to do it themselves. But the university has made no announcement to the rest of the community of phd students and families living at Chapin of how the university plans to handle such cases and ensure their health and safety. The tenants continue to use the shared laundry, gym, and family room facilities unaware that students either from Wuhan or in close contact with people from Wuhan. Institutions like these are the reason parents worry and do not want to pivot to the flu -- for which we have vaccinated ourselves against.
January 31, 2020
please do not delete my comments to bury the truth.
January 31, 2020
Parents are understandably concerned. While their children may be vaccinated against the flu, they aren't vaccines for the coronavirus. Parents of college students are concerned, especially public state colleges with a large number of students from China and some have a direct pipeline to Wuhan which means an exchange of professors/students w/ Wuhan. Stony Brook Univ. for instance has 5000 students from China, currently 40 are stuck in Wuhan. Univ has only pressured to come back before February 7th instead of quarantine plans.
January 30, 2020
Let us not ignore the fact that we have our children vaccinated against the flu, whereas, with the coronavirus WE DO NOT. Let us think critically. Also, referring to the CDC is too passive. CDC has been very slow to respond and strategic in a way that does not prioritize parents' concerns. For example, university students are forced to sit in 200 plus student classroom, only centimeters apart, and many public institutions have large numbers in students from China. Universities are not proactively checking in on all students who have arrived from Wuhan and leaving this up to the student to appear at the health clinic if symptoms arise. Asymptomatic transmission has occurred -- we have proof of this. So why do the CDC and blindly adhering institutions tell us to only report ourselves and isolate ourselves if and when we experience symptoms? Virus shedding is happening asymptomatically and contagious. Parents who are alarmed are only using their brains and not following flawed reasoning meant to diminish the risks and fears of parents. Don't write condescending articles.
January 30, 2020