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Science

Coronavirus Today FAQ: Your top questions answered

Good morning. I’m Diya Chacko, and today we’re bringing you a special edition of our Coronavirus Today newsletter to answer the most common questions you’ve been sending our way.

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In the weeks since we launched this newsletter, our readers have emailed us with thousands of questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve run the gamut from the basics, like what the virus does to the body, to more specific concerns about how the disease is affecting travel, grocery shopping and other important aspects of our lives.

We’ve answered many of your questions in our regular weekday editions. For this special edition, we’ve compiled answers to the most common ones you’ve sent, relying on the expertise of The Times’ science reporting team. To read more of their work, from Q&As to explainers to investigations, visit the Coronavirus page on the L.A. Times website.

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Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write to us. We’re here for you, and we welcome your questions and comments at coronavirus@latimes.com. Sign up for the newsletter to keep getting answers.

What is the coronavirus?

The term “coronavirus” refers generally to a category of viruses that circulate in animals, including humans. It got its name because, under a microscope, the virus resembles a crown (corona in Latin).

There are many known types of coronaviruses, which infect bats, camels and other animals as well as humans. Some coronaviruses cause the common cold. Others cause more severe illnesses such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

The scientific name for the coronavirus at the center of the global pandemic is SARS-CoV-2. Because it’s brand-new, there is no natural immunity to it in the population, and researchers must start from square one to develop a vaccine.

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The official name for the pneumonia-like disease that this new coronavirus causes is COVID-19, short for Coronavirus Disease 2019. Read more about key terms and what they mean in our glossary.

How does the coronavirus spread?

It starts with respiratory droplets.

Imagine an infected person who coughs or sneezes. He or she sprays tiny drops of infected saliva, which can fly about 3 feet before they fall to the ground. During those few seconds, those droplets can be inhaled by people nearby and infect them.

A sneeze or cough can also deposit virus-laden droplets onto doorknobs, elevator buttons or your cellphone. Tests have also found that the virus can live on some surfaces for up to three days. Then, all you have to do is lay a finger on one of these surfaces and touch your nose, your eye or your mouth.

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Here’s much more information on how the virus spreads.

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How can I protect myself from getting the coronavirus?

Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. If you’re working outside your home, wash your hands before, during and after your shift. Avoid touching your face.

If you choose to wear gloves, wash your hands before and after wearing them, and use the same precautions you would if you weren’t wearing gloves — i.e., don’t touch a surface and then touch another person.

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Avoid close contact with others. That means no mass gatherings or any other meet-ups in places where people may congregate. If you absolutely must be out in public, maintain a 6-foot radius of personal space. Here’s more on how best to do it.

Should I wear a mask?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now advising Americans to wear a basic cloth or fabric face mask when they go out to help curb the spread. These non-medical masks can be either bought or homemade, the CDC says. They should be washed between wearings in hot, soapy water.

Previously, the CDC had said that healthy people who do not work in the healthcare sector and are not taking care of an infected person at home did not need to wear masks. It changed its guidance in response to a growing body of evidence that people who do not appear to be sick are playing an outsized role in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts say masks alone are not particularly effective in preventing infection and caution that wearing them is not a substitute for handwashing and social distancing. But even if they don’t fully protect the wearer, they can protect others nearby by removing virus droplets from the air released by asymptomatic people.

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Here are California’s guidelines for cloth masks, and here are our tips on making and wearing them, including what not to do.

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If I think I might have been exposed, what should I do?

The CDC recommends you self-quarantine for 14 days to see if you develop COVID-19 symptoms. Check out our guide to when and how to do so.

If you do develop symptoms, you should isolate yourself from others for the duration of your symptoms, which could be up to 14 days.

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What are the symptoms?

The most common reported symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough and shortness of breath. Chills, body aches, sore throat, runny nose, headache, diarrhea and nausea are also possible. Some doctors have also reported seeing COVID-19 patients who had lost their sense of smell or taste.

It is also possible to contract the virus and not have any symptoms.

Among those who become infected, older people are most likely to become seriously ill, particularly those with underlying medical conditions.

If you think you might have COVID-19 and the symptoms seem life-threatening, you should call 911 right away. If the symptoms do not seem life-threatening, call a doctor for a phone consultation before you go anywhere.

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To protect yourself and your healthcare providers, it’s best not to show up at an emergency room, urgent care center or doctor’s office without calling first. You don’t want to risk getting the virus if you don’t have it, and you don’t want to spread it if you do.

What is the treatment?

There is no specific treatment yet for COVID-19. However, scientists are studying the efficacy of a number of drugs that are already approved to treat other conditions, including malaria, lupus and high blood pressure. Early results on some of them make researchers hopeful.

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If you have or think you have COVID-19 and your symptoms are not severe, simply rest, drink plenty of fluids and eat nourishing food. Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, can reduce fever and pain. Ibuprofen is fine too, doctors say.

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Set up a “sick” room at home to distance yourself from others. You should have as little contact with others as possible. Ideally, you would stay in a private room that other members of the household do not enter.

If your symptoms get worse after several days, seek prompt medical care, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. Warning signs include difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to get up, or bluish lips or face, according to the CDC.

Is there a vaccine?

Not yet, although a human trial in one experimental effort is now underway.

Creating a vaccine capable of preventing the coronavirus will probably take at least a year to 18 months, health officials say. Anyone who says they can do it faster, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “will be cutting corners that would be detrimental.” There were already about 10 candidates in the works as of March 10.

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New vaccines require copious research and time-consuming testing that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. There’s no guarantee of success, but even if everything goes well, the final product might not hit the market until after an outbreak has subsided. Here’s our deeper look at vaccines, from types to testing to regulatory approval.

Scientists also hope to be able to retrieve antibodies from the blood plasma of recovered COVID-19 patients as a kind of vaccine. The idea is that those antibodies could act like a vaccine, teaching a sick person’s immune system how to recognize and fight the virus.

Can you become immune to the coronavirus?

In general, after a person has recovered from COVID-19 or another virus, it is believed that they will have some immunity to it, at least for a while. Because the virus is so new, the level and length of that immunity is not yet clear.

Test results on some patients in China initially indicated they had apparently become reinfected soon after recovery, but scientists say testing errors may have been to blame for the results.

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“If you get an infection, your immune system is revved up against that virus,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, director of Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health. “To get reinfected again when you’re in that situation would be quite unusual unless your immune system was not functioning right.”

The question of just who has recovered and gained some immunity is one scientists urgently want to answer, and they’re rushing to develop a test to detect antibodies that would supply the answer. Today, such tests are still in research labs.

Understanding how many people are immune to the new coronavirus would help public health officials anticipate their communities’ healthcare needs by assessing how many remain vulnerable and how aggressive the virus actually is.

In theory, people who have become immune could provide care to those who are sick with COVID-19 or step into other high-risk jobs.

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What else do you want to know?
Email us your questions at coronavirus@latimes.com.

You can also find answers to readers’ questions, and maybe yours, in our past newsletter editions.


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