As the coronavirus spreads throughout the world, there are a lot of unknowns. Here are some basic, easy things all parents can do to prepare for an outbreak in America.

By Nicole Harris
Updated March 27, 2020

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Parents.com's COVID-19 Guide for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

If you’re a parent, you’re probably glued to news coverage of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the respiratory disease that originated in Wuhan, China. The coronavirus has spread to at least 171 counties, where it’s sickened more than 541,200 people and caused at least 24,700 deaths. There’s also been 85,381 confirmed cases—the most in the world—and 1,271 deaths in America. 

It’s natural for parents to worry, but fortunately, experts say your child isn’t likely to contract the coronavirus without known exposure to the disease—which is why social distancing is so important. And even if your kid does develop the coronavirus, it probably won’t be severe or life-threatening. Confirmed cases in children tend to have mild symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Limited reports of children with COVID-19 in China have described cold-like symptoms, such as fever, runny nose, and cough,” says the CDC, adding that vomiting and diarrhea have also been documented. In fact, a recent study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that nearly half of COVID-19 patients may experience digestive issues.

“These limited reports suggest that children with confirmed COVID-19 have generally presented with mild symptoms, and though severe complications (acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock) have been reported, they appear to be uncommon.”

Even so, it’s important to be prepared. In a press briefing on February 25, the CDC said that a coronavirus outbreak in America is imminent. The organization added that citizens must prepare for school closures, teleworking, and using telehealth systems in an effort to contain the disease. While you can’t control how the coronavirus will spread and how public officials will handle closing institutions, there are some things you can control. Here’s how to gear your family up for a potential outbreak.

Teach your kids to wash their hands.

The coronavirus is a respiratory illness like the cold or flu. If bacteria-ridden droplets get into a child’s nose or mouth, he can become sick with the disease, says Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., biology professor and director of the microbiology research lab at William Paterson University and author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World. The best prevention is proper hand hygiene, so teach your kids how to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Make sure they clean up before eating and before touching their eyes, nose, and mouth.

Learn about your school’s infectious disease protocol.

Schools in Japan have closed for about one month—partly in an effort to control the coronavirus before the Tokyo Olympics, which have now been postponed. School closures have also occurred in China, Washington, Chicago, New York, and other affected areas. So how can you prepare for this potentially happening in your community?

According to The New York Times, all American school districts have infectious disease protocols, and many are gearing up for the coronavirus. Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, previously suggested that parents contact their school district to ask about protocol. She adds that “internet-based teleschooling” might be an option in the case of school closures—but of course, this plan might not be possible for students without home computers, according to The New York Times

Use caution when traveling.

The White House banned all travel from Europe for the next 30 days, and the CDC recommends avoiding all nonessential travel to China, Iran, and South Korea. Check out the latest guidelines and recommendations, and use your discretion before embarking on a trip. You'll need to weigh the benefits against the risk, says Dr. Wahrman, since an outbreak in your area or the area where you're traveling to could occur at any time. If you do travel by plane, avoid people who look sick, wash your hands often, and disinfect communal items like tray tables.

Stock up on groceries and basics.

If there’s a coronavirus outbreak in your neighborhood, consider stocking up on non-perishable groceries like boxed macaroni and cheese, crackers, and apples (which last longer than other fruits). That way, you won't need to leave the house in case of quarantine. 

Also consider bulk-buying other sick day necessities like toilet paper, cough drops, tissues, and hand sanitizer. (Hand sanitizer has sold out in many places, though. Check out our guide for making your own kid-friendly version). But don't go crazy; you'll likely only be quarantined for 14 days, and other people need supplies too.

Tetra Images/Getty Images

Talk to your children.

Your child has probably heard about the coronavirus on the playground. But since his classmates aren’t the most reliable sources of information, it’s important that you maintain age-appropriate communication about the disease. Let your child know that you’re available for questions, and answer his inquiries honestly (but there’s no need to scare him unnecessarily). This comic from NPR is a nice conversation starter. 

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