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You’ve been cooped up for weeks and your days are running together. While covid-19 cases have peaked in some states, they are on the rise in others. Some states are moving to reopen while others are holding back. Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic right now.
Is it safe for me to go outside?
For most people, absolutely, experts say. The outdoors may preserve your sanity — and save social distancing.
“If we don’t encourage people to get outside, we will have a widespread social insurrection,” said Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “People are already challenged by the isolation imposed by social distancing.”
Experts say that if you maintain a six-foot distance from other people, you should be even safer outside than in a closed area.
When outdoors, “you don’t have to stay six feet away from your spouse or child,” said Maria Raven, chief of emergency medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “But if you are meeting a friend for a hike or going to the grocery store, keep your distance.”
Dog walking is a good activity — as long as you don’t let your pet get too close to other dogs or other people. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no indication pets play a significant role in transmitting the virus, it recommends you treat them like family members, keeping them away from animals and people not in your household. Duke University researchers recently reported that Winston, a pug in North Carolina, tested positive for the virus — the first reported canine case in the United States. But the results still need to be confirmed.
If I’m older, do I have to stay inside all the time?
It’s hard to generalize, Marrazzo said, because “some 70-year-olds run marathons, so you can’t make a blanket statement about people’s risks.” But conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and diabetes raise people’s risks of becoming severely ill or dying of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And even healthy seniors, she said, “don’t get a complete pass” on increased risk. The bottom line: All seniors should take extra care.
What about masks? Should I wear one?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that face coverings be worn in public places to slow spread of the virus, a reversal of previous recommendations.
The CDC’s website says the agency recommends the coverings for “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g. grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
Some businesses do not allow customers to enter without wearing masks.
The recommendation was announced in early April by President Trump, who stressed that the guidance was voluntary and said he wasn’t planning to wear a mask. The guidance was issued after a vigorous debate within the administration. Some officials wanted the recommendation targeted primarily to locales that are being especially affected by the virus.
But health officials argued that universal masking was necessary, pointing to new data showing that a high proportion of infected people may not exhibit symptoms, even as they spread the virus by emitting droplets when they talk, sneeze or even exhale. A mask — or some kind of cloth face covering, such as a bandanna or scarf — keeps those people from infecting others, they say.
Health officials made clear that the public should avoid using the kind of gear — N95 respirators or surgical masks — that is in short supply and desperately needed by health workers.
What do I do if my significant other gets sick?
It depends. If you have been with the person day and night for several days, you may already be exposed. Still, you can’t know for sure, and doctors say it’s wise to err on the side of caution and distance yourself as much as possible.
Most cases of covid-19 have mild or moderate symptoms, and a spouse probably will be able to take care of himself or herself. If possible, the ill spouse should move into an extra bedroom, use a different bathroom and wear a mask to protect others in the household.
If you are living with someone who needs help, you should wear a mask and gloves while providing care. If you are removing a dinner plate, for example, grab it with a dishrag or wear gloves, doctors say.
Even at a distance, however, it’s important to monitor a person with covid-19. Doctors are finding that covid-19 can apparently raise the risks of blood clots, strokes and other serious conditions that require immediate medical care.
What are the symptoms of covid-19?
A few months into the crisis, we know the disease has a far wider range of symptoms than initially thought. In addition to fever, coughing, shortness of breath and other flu-like symptoms, doctors are seeing gastrointestinal problems — nausea and vomiting, for example — chest pain and a loss of smell. Some doctors report brain inflammation and pinkeye in patients. It’s not clear, physicians say, whether the varied symptoms are caused by covid-19 or just occurring at the same time.
The CDC recently added several new symptoms to its list for the coronavirus, including chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste and smell. The symptoms could appear two to 14 days after infection, the agency said.
What do I do if I think I’m infected?
Consult your primary care doctor, if you have one. Don’t go to the physician’s office or the emergency room without calling ahead. The coronavirus is highly contagious, and doctors want to protect themselves and other patients from infection. You’ll probably be advised to self-quarantine and, because there is no effective treatment for the disease, take over-the-counter pain medicines such as Tylenol.
If symptoms worsen, and you have trouble breathing or have underlying medical conditions, seek immediate medical care.
Will I be tested for the virus?
It depends on where you live and even what hospital or health system you use. After a sluggish start, diagnostic testing is ramping up in many parts of the country, helped by the entry of commercial labs and the approval of rapid tests by the Food and Drug Administration.
But in some states, laboratories are still overwhelmed by the demand and struggling with shortages of critical items, including chemical components needed to run the tests.
Governors, congressional leaders and public health officials have pressed for a robust testing plan from the federal government, insisting that frequent and widespread testing is crucial to ending the stay-at-home orders that have idled businesses in much of the country. But a “blueprint” presented Monday by Trump leaves the onus on states to develop their own plans and rapid-response programs.
The United States has run more tests than any other country but trails many nations in per capita testing.
What about home tests?
The FDA has not approved any tests in which the entire process — collection of nasal specimen, followed by processing and result — occur at home. But it did give emergency authorization for a test that allows patients to collect nasal samples at home. The idea is for consumers to go online and fill out a questionnaire with LabCorp, a North Carolina company. If they meet CDC guidelines for testing, they’ll be sent the Pixel kit that includes swabs and saline. Once patients collect the specimens, they can mail them to a LabCorp lab for processing.
LabCorp said it would initially make the test available only to health-care workers and emergency workers showing covid-19 symptoms. The company plans to make the test available to consumers in coming weeks. Allowing people to self-swab reduces the risk of transmitting the virus to others and the need for personal protective equipment, because health-care providers are not involved in sample collection, the company said.
What about antibody tests?
One of the hottest topics now is serology tests, designed to detect whether you have been exposed to the virus and have antibodies that may help show whether you have immunity to the illness. They are not designed to detect active infections.
Dozens of antibody tests are on the market, but the FDA has authorized fewer than 10. The agency has taken a hands-off approach, allowing companies to sell the test after notifying the FDA and saying the tests have been validated. At the same time, the agency and testing experts have warned that some of the tests are being marketed fraudulently and are of dubious quality. The government is trying to validate the unvetted tests, but it is unclear when the data will be available.
Even authorized tests have come in for scrutiny. Some government and business officials tout them as a way to reopen the economy by identifying people who can safely return to work. But many scientists, as well as the World Health Organization, say evidence is lacking that even high-quality antibody tests can prove someone who was infected has immunity from the novel coronavirus and is not at risk of being reinfected.
When will this end?
No one knows, though experts say the social distancing practiced by many Americans has prevented the pandemic from being worse. It isn’t clear how the arrival of summer’s warmer weather will affect the virus.
The White House is finalizing expanded guidelines to allow the phased reopening of schools and camps, child-care programs, certain workplaces, houses of worship, restaurants and mass transit, according to documents under review by administration officials.
Several states are lifting, or considering lifting, strict stay-at-home orders to allow some businesses to reopen. Colorado, Georgia and Texas are among those pressing ahead. Even New York, which was hit especially hard, is exploring a loosening of the rules. But public health officials warn state leaders to proceed carefully and to be prepared to reinstate tough regulations if the number of virus cases surges. Experts say any successful reopening strategy must be accompanied by additional testing and contact tracing to quickly find and isolate people who contract the virus.
Even after Americans emerge from their isolation, chances are good we will have to maintain some measures — isolating the infected, regular hand-washing, some degree of social distancing — until viable treatments and vaccines are developed, which could take months or years.
Joel Achenbach, Ariana Eunjung Cha, Josh Dawsey, Juliet Eilperin, Angela Fritz, Carolyn Y. Johnson, Chris Mooney, Christopher Rowland, Lena H. Sun and William Wan contributed to this report.