When can I get vaccinated? And answers to 30 other coronavirus questions

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February 2, 2021

When can I get vaccinated? And answers to 30 other coronavirus questions

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in states across the United States, people want clear and accurate answers to pressing questions about how to manage daily life in the face of this dangerous virus. Given what we know about the extremely contagious nature of the novel coronavirus and its new variants, and its high rate of serious health impacts and death, it helps to know how to continue to keep yourself and others safe while living life as normally as the pandemic allows.

Fear is a natural response to new information about threats and their risks. But with accurate information on how to take action to protect yourself and loved ones, fear naturally causes humans to become more efficient in responding to danger. This can lead to action, agency, courage, creativity, and much more. In fact, the upwelling we've seen around the world of compassionate, urgent, and brave responses to the pandemic is part of this process.

Almost all of us are still experiencing changes to daily life we couldn't have imagined at the start of 2020 when the pandemic officially began. The overall approach to all tasks and functions, whether you are working from home or going outside for essential work, lies with keeping yourself and others safe from the dangers of COVID-19.

Stacker scoured other news outlets and public health resources—and surveyed our families and friends—to compile a list of 31 common questions about COVID-19 and provide answers for each. A few of the most important takeaway points are still staying away from others, washing your hands, and knowing what to do if you get sick. Less obvious, are answers about the new vaccines and coronavirus variants. With accurate information that allows for informed action and protection in place, people will find ever more creative ways of expressing their support, love, and compassion for others during this global health crisis.

What are the major COVID-19 symptoms?

The symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are a bit similar, so it’s important to pay attention right now if you get sick. Both can include fever, muscle ache, and fatigue, but COVID-19 symptoms often also include a dry cough and shortness of breath. If you have any questions about your symptoms, call the Centers for Disease Control Self-Check and call your doctor. If you are experiencing respiratory distress, seek medical help immediately.

How does COVID-19 spread?

The main way SARS-CoV-2 spreads is through droplets in the air called aerosols. When an infected person coughs or sneezes—or just talks or breathes—in your general vicinity, virus-laden droplets are spewed out into the air. When you inhale these droplets through your nose or mouth, the virus can start its infection in your respiratory cells.

Is COVID-19 dangerous for young people?

Although COVID-19 is generally most risky for older adults and those with certain health conditions, the Centers for Disease Control research released on March 18, 2020, shows that a significant number of younger people also get seriously ill. As many as one-fifth of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals were between 20 and 44 years old. And in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine on April 28, 2020, doctors working at Mount Sinai in New York City reported that five people under the age of 50 had large vessel strokes. All tested positive for COVID-19—and all had few or no symptoms.

Research over the past several months has continued to support the fact that young people are more likely to recover from COVID-19, but the risk of serious complications or death is still present. CDC data released in a January 2021 report found those under 24 are at an increasingly high risk of contracting the virus: In 3 million new U.S. cases among those 24 and younger, 57% occurred in adults from 18 to 24.

Is COVID-19 more dangerous for men?

Data from numerous countries indicates that men have a greater risk of infection, serious illness, and death related to COVID-19 than women, with death rates nearly double that of women (although this depends on the country and other factors). At first, researchers thought this might be related to behavior differences, such as hand-washing choices, seeking medical treatment, or smoking. However, the pattern is now so pronounced across the world that researchers suspect there is a fundamental biological mechanism at work that we will only know with more research.

One study released April 29, 2020, in Frontiers in Public Health found that men and women shared equal risk of contracting COVID-19, but that men had a higher chance of facing more serious or significant symptoms. A global study of over 3 million COVID-19 cases, published on Dec. 9, 2020, confirmed that men are three times more likely to need intensive medical care and 40% more likely to die from the virus. 

Are smokers more at risk for COVID-19?

Yes, smokers are at significantly greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19 than non-smokers. Smokers’ lungs are already compromised, and the additional impact of the respiratory complications from novel coronavirus is that much harder on the lungs. The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper on Feb. 28, 2020, that showed smokers, or those who smoked regularly in the past, have a 10% greater chance of serious complications from COVID-19 than non-smokers.

How do asymptomatic people spread COVID-19?

One of the reasons COVID-19 is so dangerous is it spreads very effectively to others from those who don’t realize they’re infected. These people are “asymptomatic” or have such a mild response to the disease that they don’t realize they might have it.

More than half of all infections are in mild or asymptomatic people who spread the virus with no awareness they are doing so. This happens through “viral shedding;” when the virus is fully active in people’s nose, throats, and lungs—and fully contagious—even in mild or asymptomatic cases. As many as 25% of those infected may not show symptoms, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control on March 30, 2020.

A CDC study published on Jan. 7, 2021, found that 59% of COVID-19 cases are transmitted from asymptomatic virus carriers. 

How long does COVID-19 survive on different surfaces?

Scientists warned in spring 2020 that the novel coronavirus may be able to spread on familiar surfaces, like boxes, mail, and groceries. One study found that the virus could live for days on plastic, steel, or cardboard. Since the spring, however, biologists have learned that the virus’ spread through air poses a much greater risk than its spread on surfaces; even the CDC updated its guidance to say that surface transmission is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Still, washing your hands and keeping surfaces clean is a helpful practice to continue.

Can dogs and other pets get COVID-19?

The Centers for Disease Control has previously said the risk of animals becoming infected is rare. But they updated their guidelines following two cats' positive tests, announcing that the same social distancing measures for humans should be employed for pets. This includes avoiding pets' interaction with other animals or people outside the home—particularly public places and dog parks—and maintaining 6 feet when walking dogs. Existing precautions like careful hand-washing and covering your face still applies. If you are sick with COVID-19, the CDC recommends that someone else in your home take over care of your pet.

How can I naturally boost my immune system?

A whole host of healthy habits will give you and your body a great immune boost. Drinking plenty of water, getting fresh air and exercise, building in socially distant time with friends, and adding garlic, mushrooms, and vitamin C to your diet are all great ways to naturally build up your immune system. Check out this list of tips from Stacker on boosting your immunity.

Is it safe to take ibuprofen?

Most likely, yes. The doubts about ibuprofen surfaced in part as a result of a letter published on March 12, 2020, in the journal The Lancet. The story serves as a cautionary tale in a pandemic, when people may seize on information that is not accurate and spread it. The letter in question hypothesized that some medications, including ibuprofen, might possibly make it easier for the novel coronavirus to infect cells. There was no study or evidence to support this claim besides an idea about how the virus might possibly interact with the medication in the body.

It is fine to choose acetaminophen to feel better if you are concerned. According to an NPR story on March 18, 2020, Dr. Angela Rogers, “a pulmonologist at the Stanford University Medical Center and chair of its intensive care unit's COVID-19 task force, says that Tylenol (acetaminophen) is the go-to medication for patients who are sick enough to be hospitalized for any infection.” If you have any questions about whether to take ibuprofen for COVID-19 symptoms, call your doctor.

Which over-the-counter medicines can safely alleviate symptoms?

For the basic treatment of COVID-19 symptoms, the Mayo Clinic recommends pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, cough suppressants and medications, plenty of fluids, and lots of rest. 

What cleaning products will kill the virus?

Since it is possible for the COVID-19 virus to live on surfaces for hours to days, cleaning is key. Cleaning products that kill the virus include soap and water, bleach, surgical spirits (basically high-strength ethanol), and hand sanitizers with ethanol higher than 70%. Cleaning and disinfecting your kitchen and other high-use areas will help kill any living virus in your home. Airing out inside air also helps, since the virus is airborne. Plus, if someone is in your home who has COVID-19 (whether they know it or not), adopting cleaning procedures will help protect other residents in your home.

Will wearing gloves protect you?

There is no clear evidence that wearing gloves will protect people who leave their homes to shop for basic, essential items. The Centers for Disease Control does recommend wearing gloves if you are caring for someone at home who has COVID-19. But some researchers are concerned that wearing gloves as a measure to protect yourself can actually backfire, as the gloves may offer a false sense of security. They urge people to always wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after any essential trip out.

Why is handwashing so important?

It’s basic chemistry! Soap is special; because of its chemical structure it powerfully breaks molecules apart. Washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds essentially destroys and removes any virus or bacteria that may be on your hands. In fact, according to Popular Science, Mathew Freeman, a professor of epidemiology and global health at Emory University, says that, “Handwashing with soap for 20 seconds is one of the single most important practices to protect yourself, your family, and your community.”

You may also like: COVID-19 is the latest example of zoonosis—here are 30 other diseases animals transmit to humans

Why do I need to wear a mask when I leave the house?

Now that we know a large portion of people can spread the virus without realizing they are infected—and that COVID-19 can spread through talking and breathing—the CDC has issued a recommendation that people wear face masks over their nose and mouth in public settings. Guidelines on the CDC website outline the best fabric to use for masks (cotton) and how to make your own, homemade masks

What should I do if I've been exposed to the virus?

The CDC recommends you self-quarantine if you find out you’ve been exposed to the virus. That means if you recently spent 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone, hugged, or shared utensils with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, stay home and, as much as possible, stay away from household members. The CDC recommends quaranting for 14 days since your last contact with a COVID-19 positive person.

What are the different types of COVID-19 tests?

The two main types of COVID-19 tests are DNA-based tests, which look for the presence of the genes of the virus itself, and antibody tests, which instead look for signs that your immune system has taken actions to fight off the disease. The former is what you get when your nasal cavity is swabbed or, less frequently, when you spit in a small vial—the test tells you whether you’re currently positive for the disease. The latter requires a blood draw and tells you whether you’ve already had it.

How can I stay safe while grocery shopping?

First, reduce your number of outings as much as possible: Order groceries to be delivered or pick them up curbside. If you do need to physically enter a store, there are a few key ways to protect yourself and others while shopping. Wear a mask and always wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds before, and especially after, you go out. Stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and wipe down all surfaces you will touch, like the grocery cart or shopping basket handle, with a disinfecting wipe before directly touching it. 

How can I safely order take-out?

During this time, take-out or delivery of food from local eateries may be a balm to you and to your local businesses. Is it safe? With some precautions, yes. Health experts say that as long as you wash your hands well after removing the outer packaging, you will remove any points of contact for the virus to infect you. Keep “no contact” protocols in place as much as possible.

How can I stay safe while getting gas?

Protect yourself and others when you pump by wiping every surface you touch with disinfecting wipes, before and after pumping. If you can, use EPA-registered household disinfectants, such as Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Lysol brand disinfectants. The CDC is not recommending gloves unless you are sick, in which case, please stay home. And remember, wash hands thoroughly before and after gassing up and any errands.

How can I protect myself while doing laundry?

It is a good idea to up your laundry game during the pandemic. The virus is able to survive on surfaces, including cloth, for varying periods of time. Basic laundry instructions from health care experts are: Wash your clothes in hot water above 80 degrees; use a detergent with a bleach compound; and wash clothes separately from anyone at home who is sick.

If you need to use a laundromat, disinfect surfaces with wipes as you would while grocery shopping.

How can I protect my elderly parents?

The White House in early April 2020 issued specific social distancing guidance urging older Americans and those with underlying health conditions to stay home and to avoid other people. The best way to support your older parents is to help make sure they are prepared to shelter in place, follow all protocols for self-protection if food or other items are delivered, and hold off on visits during high case counts in your area. Adults over 65, or with certain conditions like diabetes or impaired heart or lung function, are at almost double the risk for serious complications from COVID-19.

How can I protect my kids?

Research so far suggests that kids are more likely to have mild or no symptoms if they contract COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect them like the adults in your life. The CDC recommends children over the age of 2 wear masks over their nose and mouth when outside the house, and should follow other guidelines like social distancing, proper handwashing, and avoiding close contact with people especially vulnerable to the disease, such as grandparents. 

How can I support my local health care workers?

The best thing you can is to stay home! More than anything else, this will help reduce strain and impact on health care workers and the health care system by keeping more people safe and healthy. Other things you can do to directly support medical teams is to donate any personal protective equipment (PPE) you may have, call elected officials to support a federal response to ensure PPE is available to health-care workers, donate money, and possibly help by making face masks to help in certain instances. There are detailed support instructions for more ways to help health care workers offered by the American Medical Association.

How can I help postal workers and delivery drivers?

Delivery drivers for places like the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and Amazon quickly found themselves on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their deliveries are even more important now that many Americans depend on deliveries for essential food and other items. Unfortunately, many drivers are physically unprotected and don't have health insurance. Companies are working to solve a situation where drivers face a high risk of exposure by doing their normal jobs.

You can take precautions at home by cleaning the inside of your mailbox with a disinfectant wipe and respecting a delivery person's space by letting them set packages down for you without you taking them by hand. If you want to leave a care package for delivery workers, follow all protocols for safety as you assemble it.

Should I go to a more rural location to wait this out?

The best guidance is to stay home and stay put. Do not travel to other places or second homes in the country. Others who travel like this are risking the possibility of spreading the virus. The science of COVID-19 is clear: People who travel increase the risk to others by inadvertently spreading this highly contagious and dangerous virus.

When should I go to the hospital if I think I have COVID-19?

The CDC has specific instructions for what to do while you are sick that include isolating and practicing protective hygiene. Always call your doctor if you have questions. The CDC says to seek immediate medical attention if you have “trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, or have bluish lips or face," but notes this list is not all-inclusive.

Can people contract the virus more than once?

The first case of an American citizen contracting COVID-19 twice happened in Nevada in mid-October 2020. Similar cases have been documented around the world. There are also many people who have likely had the disease and don’t know for sure because they have not been tested.

What do I need to know about the new variants?

At least three new variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been identified as of January 2021, and all three have been documented in the U.S. It’s normal for a virus to mutate over time—it’s why you need a new flu shot every year. Still, researchers are hard at work to learn how these new strains will impact things like transmission and death rates from COVID-19. So far, the new variants seem to spread more quickly and easily than the original novel coronavirus that spread across the world in 2020. Studies suggest current vaccines should still protect against the new variants, but more work is needed to be sure.

When will I be able to get vaccinated?

The CDC has guidelines for who has priority to get a COVID-19 vaccine, starting with frontline health care workers and people living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The next group includes other essential workers, people over 65, and people with pre-existing medical conditions—all people at higher risk of contracting the disease or dying once they’ve contracted it. For everyone else, it’s up to your state to decide vaccine priority based on age, health, occupation, and location.

When will life return to normal?

Life will be different after a global pandemic. Almost everyone on Earth has already been affected one way or another, and some of these impacts will be lasting. We don’t know yet how quickly we will develop a vaccine or effective drugs, but people are working around the clock to help everyone adapt to this immediate “new normal.” As the pandemic surges in the immediate future and countries around the world work to “flatten the curve,” one thing to keep in mind is that pandemics have impacted human civilization before and people have responded in various creative ways depending on the time, era, and the traits of the disease itself. The question now is, how will we respond?

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