Right now, Dr. Carlos del Rio is more worried about driving in this city than he is about getting COVID-19. “Accidents on the Connector are more common than any coronavirus I know at this point in time in Atlanta,” said the Emory University infectious disease doctor during a recent morning rush hour. Currently, a handful of COVID-19 cases have been identified in the metro area, most linked to recent travel—but it’s likely Georgia will see more cases. Below, we’ve gathered some information, including top tips from Dr. del Rio, on how to prepare yourself and your family. [Editor’s note: This story was initially published on March 6; the amount of cases in Georgia has since grown to more than 100.]
Should I wear a mask?
Seeing healthcare personnel suit up in personal protective equipment to transport patients with COVID-19 makes people wonder if they, too, need full-body Tyvek to avoid infection. They do not. People providing direct care to infected and seriously ill patients get exposed to large amounts of virus-loaded respiratory droplets and then have close contact with other uninfected but vulnerable patients, so they need a much higher level of protection than people who might pick up the virus through casual contact.
“We need to do a lot of handwashing,” says del Rio, to protect from this and most other respiratory illnesses. Wash your hands when you think they’re dirty or when you’ve been in public places, around children, in bathrooms, or anywhere else your hands may have touched surfaces others have touched. Twenty seconds with warm water, soap, and a catchy tune does the job, and you can use any soap—it doesn’t have to be branded as “antibacterial.”
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are great for convenience, but are not otherwise superior to handwashing. If you haven’t stocked up and shelves near you are empty, you can make your own at home using other widely available ingredients and the World Health Organization’s recipe. And remember that if your hands are visibly soiled or very greasy, sanitizer won’t work—you’ll need to wash with soap and water.
As for face masks, healthcare personnel use two types: surgical masks to prevent their own germs from reaching patients, and N95 masks to prevent themselves from catching patients’ germs. If you are sick but need to go to the store for milk, says del Rio, a surgical mask is a public kindness; but N95 masks are a different story. To work at all, they need to be individually fit-tested to the user’s face to ensure no air flows around the sides of the mask. Because of that fit, they’re stifling to have on and cannot be worn for long periods of time.
Additionally, N95 masks are critically important for people providing direct care to patients. If healthcare providers get infected with a COVID-19 patient’s germs, not only could they infect other patients, but they would have to stay out of work for at least two weeks, further straining an already-overburdened healthcare system. So don’t hoard masks, especially N95s.
Do I need to stay home even if I’m not sick?
Because older adults and people with chronic medical conditions are at higher risk for more serious illness with COVID-19 infection, the CDC has now recommended people in these risk groups stay home as much as possible and avoid crowds. [Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this story, many large gatherings including the NCAA tournament, MLS, MLB, and NBA games have been canceled or postponed, schools and universities closed, and some offices have implemented work-from-home polities. Social distancing is strongly encouraged and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people. Follow local guidelines and stay home if you feel ill—see below for more on what to do if you feel sick.]
How is COVID-19 transmitted?
The virus that causes COVID-19 is part of the family of coronaviruses, which cause 10 to 30 percent of common colds. Like other coronaviruses, it’s spread by breathing in droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. But it’s also transmitted when those droplets land on surfaces; if an infected person sneezes into their hand then touches a doorknob, the person who touches that doorknob next could easily get viral particles on their hands, making it easy to introduce into their respiratory tract by rubbing their eyes or touching their nose or mouth.
One of the best ways to protect yourself is to avoid touching your face. “It’s not going to go in through your skin,” says del Rio. “After you touch that doorknob, if you don’t touch your face, you’re not going to get contaminated.”
Can the coronavirus live on surfaces?
We don’t yet know exactly how long this particular virus hangs around on surfaces, so it’s also a good idea to clean that doorknob on a regular basis. Research on other coronaviruses suggests that while they can stay on metal, glass, or plastic for over a week, they usually persist for closer to half a day. The good news is that the COVID-19 virus is a relatively delicate organism, making it easy to remove from surfaces with common household cleaners such as diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants. If you’re cleaning after sharing space with someone who might be sick, focus on high-touch surfaces, including tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks, toilets, and sinks.
What should I do if I might be infected?
If you develop fever and a dry cough after recent travel or contact with a sick person who traveled recently to a place where COVID-19 is spreading, call your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor, reach out to an urgent care center. Either way, call in advance rather than appearing unannounced at the clinic, where you might infect other patients and staff. You might not need testing; but if you do, the samples will need to be gathered at a healthcare provider’s office and sent to CDC.
Will testing be expensive?
In Georgia, COVID-19 tests are currently being done at CDC and the Georgia Public Health Laboratory, and they do not cost anything to the people who are tested. However, testing should soon be more widely available, as several commercial laboratories have also developed COVID-19 tests.
America’s Health Insurance Plans, a lobbying organization that represents some of the nation’s biggest insurers—including Georgia’s largest, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield—today released a statement indicating it would provide coverage for coronavirus tests ordered by physicians, and that insurers may waive out-of-pocket costs for testing. Check with your insurance plan to determine what your individual policy will cover.
What are state officials doing to prepare now that the virus is here?
The Georgia Department of Public Health is adapting its pandemic flu plan to prepare in case of COVID-19 spread and has epidemiologists on call to help health care providers evaluate people with symptoms. Passenger screening is underway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. If needed, the health department may recommend measures to reduce community spread, like school and child care closures and postponement or cancellation of mass gatherings. But in Atlanta, we’re not there yet. Keep an eye on the state’s COVID-19 website for updates. [Editor’s note: Many metro Atlanta schools have since announced closures, including Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb, Decatur, and APS. Please check with your local school system for updates.]
If the health department does recommend reduced social contact, it will be much less painful if you’ve done some prep work. That means having three days’ worth of shelf-stable food and water in the house: “You don’t need to go to Costco and buy the entire store,” says del Rio. “This is not nuclear catastrophe.” It is also worth having a month’s supply of medications you or your pets take regularly at home. The CDC maintains a robust disaster preparedness checklist that works well for epidemic preparation. [Editor’s note: Since publication of this story, the CDC is strongly encouraging social distancing. Based on CDC recommendations, the mayor has prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people.]
And an important note:
One more thing, says del Rio: Take care not to hold entire ethnicities and nationalities responsible for infections like COVID-19. He loves something CDC director Robert Redfield recently said: “Stigma is the enemy of public health.” Although COVID-19 might have originated in China, Chinese food and products cannot transmit the virus, says del Rio. Unfortunately, the AJC reported recently that business at local Chinese restaurants has been depressed, likely due to coronavirus anxiety.
Hell yeah, he’d go eat on Buford Highway, del Rio says. “My biggest concern,” he noted, “would be trying to get there and driving and having an accident.”