Your coronavirus questions answered

As a public service, The Inquirer is making this article and other critical public health and safety coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers.

There’s a lot happening — and changing — quickly. And you have a lot of questions about what to do now, and how to stay safe. Our reporters have tracked down answers to your questions, to help us all get through these difficult times.

What do you want to know? Ask us anything.

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    Kids, friends, and family

    The kids are home from school because of coronavirus, and the places they usually hang out are closed. Are they safe to play outside? What about at the playground?

    Many places, including Philadelphia, have closed their playgrounds to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, and Pennsylvania’s orders allow going outside to exercise but not for play dates and other social gatherings.

    And when outside, everyone should maintain physical distance from anyone who does not live in the household. Experts say social distancing is the best weapon against the spread of COVID-19 — defined as keeping six feet away from another person. Children experience much less severe symptoms from COVID-19 than older people, though they can carry and spread the virus.

    A few examples: Borrowing a book “while monitoring hand hygiene” would be fine, said John Williams, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases for UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

    Similarly, “A small playground with lots of young children touching surfaces is probably not a great idea,” said Williams. “Young kids just aren’t developmentally able to think about where they put their hands and keeping them cleaned often.”

    A quieter playground or a park large enough to have space in between children is perfectly acceptable, he said, as is a hike in the woods or a backyard.

    At this time, he would consider even just a runny nose in a child to be a reason to keep them at home. “COVID-19 in kids is very mild — most kids get it and don’t even know they have it,” he said. “During this time, I would say it’s better to be overly cautious.”

    — Anya Sostek, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


    Can a pregnant woman transmit the virus to her baby?

    A report in a state-run Chinese newspaper said an infant was diagnosed 30 hours after birth, raising fears of transmission in the womb. This possibility has not been confirmed, and Chinese media has also reported an anecdotal case of a woman infected with the coronavirus who gave birth to an uninfected baby.

    A study published Feb. 12 in the Lancet followed nine pregnant women in Wuhan who had pneumonia caused by coronavirus infections. The study concluded there is currently no evidence that the virus can be passed from mother to child late in pregnancy. Another study that followed nine pregnant, COVID-19-infected women in China found none of their newborns were infected.

    In any case, it is possible for a mother to pass a disease-causing virus to her baby immediately before or after birth. This “perinatal transmission” can occur across the placenta, in the breast milk, or through direct contact during labor and delivery. The Zika and AIDS viruses, among others, have been transmitted this way.


    Can my pets get the coronavirus?

    This virus is thought to have jumped from animals to humans, but there is no evidence that it is spreading among pets or from cats and dogs to their owners.

    Still, the CDC suggests letting family members without symptoms take on pet care and recommends that people with symptoms should avoid close contact such as “petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food.”

    If you must care for your pets, wash your hands before and after.

    — Stacey Burling


    How do I convince people to practice social distancing?

    If your friends are still ignoring social distancing guidelines, experts recommend speaking to them with empathy, not judgment.

    It’s also helpful if you can figure out the psychology behind their decision, said Syon Bhanot, a behavioral economist and assistant professor at Swarthmore College. Some people may believe they are low-risk, while others might be coping with their anxiety through denial.

    “There’s also the phenomenon of when you feel that your freedom is being threatened, you push back against it,” Bhanot said. “It’s more visible in the United States, where we teach people to have pride in their freedom, and that’s a really challenging thing to have in a scenario like this.”

    Jeff Wolper, a psychologist who studies behavior in groups, said modeling the desired behavior, like running onto a lawn when you encounter someone while jogging, increases someone’s awareness of social distancing without making them anxious.

    “I’m not telling them what to do,” he said. “I’m simply disclosing what I care about, which doesn’t exacerbate their anxiety and allows them to think more responsibly and altruistically.”

    — Bethany Ao


    Symptoms and treatment

    What do I do if I have the symptoms?

    Call your physician, or call your nearest emergency department and speak to a medical professional and ask for guidance. You don’t want to just show up, because if you do have the virus, you could spread it to others.


    How do I treat coronavirus at home?

    Pretty much like a cold, says Debra Powell, chief of the infectious disease section at Reading Hospital.

    Drink lots of fluids. You can take Tylenol or an NSAID such as ibuprofen for fever, doctors said. France’s health minister recently warned against taking NSAIDs for the disease, saying they may increase the risk of complications. He recommended Tylenol instead.

    There are no treatments specifically for COVID-19.

    — Stacey Burling


    If I don't have a car, how should I get to a doctor, hospital, or testing site?

    Unfortunately, there’s no clear guidance on this.

    Generally, officials and experts say that if you believe you are sick, you should only travel if you have to. And that can favor people who can drive, especially with drive-through testing sites.

    Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said walk-in sites are available and people should contact their primary care doctors to learn how to be tested.

    That doesn’t answer how to actually get to a site, though, and the CDC says to avoid public transportation, ride-sharing services, and taxis.

    One option, if you can’t walk where you need to: SEPTA said it remains available, just please make sure to continue practicing social distancing and covering up coughs and sneezes.

    — Erin McCarthy


    How can I get tested?

    Federal health officials recently advised that not everyone needs to be tested. But if you have common coronavirus symptoms, which can include a dry cough and fever, and are at a high-risk (65 and older, or immunocomprised), you may be able to get a test near your home. In most cases, you can’t just show up to the testing sites, and some hospitals may accept referrals only from doctors in their networks. If you have a primary care doctor, call them first. You many be able to schedule a virtual consultation. A medical professional can evaluate symptoms and determine whether to refer you for a test. Here are the locations of some local testing sites

    For more information, Penn Medicine patients can call 215-615-2222 or use the MyPennMedicine app. Jefferson Health patients can go to hospitals.jefferson.edu/jeffconnect. Main Line Heath patients can call 866-225-5654. More information on Cooper Health and Tower Health testing sites can be found on their websites.

    In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said residents can call 2-1-1 for questions and concerns about the coronavirus. He said residents can still call the original COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-962-1253 or 1-800-222-1222. Residents can also text NJCOVID to 898-211 to receive updates on their phones

    — Erin McCarthy


    When should you worry that you really need to see a doctor?

    Difficulty breathing, high fever and a deeper, productive cough can be signs of pneumonia. These need medical attention. Older people and those with underlying health problems, both groups who have a higher risk, should be especially vigilant.

    — Stacey Burling


    If I’m self-quarantined, can I run errands?

    No.

    Even if you’re careful to stay away from other people in, say, the grocery store, you might spread virus by contaminating surfaces, said Debra Powell, chief of the infectious disease section at Reading Hospital.

    — Stacey Burling


    What are physicians supposed to do if they encounter a suspected case of coronavirus?

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance, as has the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. The city has sent advisories to area physicians on the protocol for caring for such patients. Here’s a summary:

    • Patient is given a surgical mask and moved to a private room, preferably an isolation room with ventilation that prevents airborne dispersion of the virus.
    • Case is reported to facility’s infection specialist and the health department.
    • Testing for 2019-nCoV (the scientific name for this type of coronavirus) once was only coordinated through state and local health departments with the CDC, but now private companies have started testing. But not nearly enough tests are being done to contain the virus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has promised that testing capacity be ramped up as it has been authorizing the emergency use of commercial tests.

    What do I do if someone in my household is sick?

    Determine how severe the symptoms are and talk to a doctor — call, don’t just show up — about whether testing is necessary. Monitor the health of the sick person, yourself, and everyone else in the home while providing plenty of fluids to the patient, who should be resting up.

    Minimize contact, including limiting physical touching and sharing household items; regularly disinfect high-touch areas such as light switches and doorknobs; and wash your hands regularly. Do the best you can, including sleeping in another room and not sharing a bathroom if possible, but don’t panic if you don’t think you can perfectly meet all the guidelines.

    — Jonathan Lai


    Can someone with no symptoms give somebody else coronavirus?

    Yes. Several medical journal articles have documented such cases, and the CDC has said it believes asymptomatic transmission occurred among evacuees from the Diamond Princess, based on the rate of new infections. What’s more, the rapid spread in Washington and California points to person-to-person transmission. Asymptomatic transmission is possible because people can “shed” certain viruses they are carrying without feeling ill.

    Still, experts say the coronavirus is more easily spread in droplets from coughs or sneezes of infected, symptomatic people.


    What if I was exposed to someone who was exposed to someone who has COVID-19?

    Strictly speaking, this is a very hard question to answer, because there are so many unknowns still with this coronavirus. Part of the difficulty in answering this question is that lagging testing capacity means many people with mild or manageable symptoms were asked to stay home and treat their symptoms, and many people are asymptomatic and have no idea they are sick.

    But specific exposure is less of a concern at this stage of the pandemic, said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute.

    Early on, preventing the disease’s spread relied on trying to pinpoint who has been infected and tracing their travels and which people were exposed to them.

    “In those early phases, when the numbers are low and we have the capacity to say, ‘Well, this person was in this location, and they came in contact with these 15 people here’ … that's a very different phase of managing an epidemic from where we are now,” Das said.

    That's why, she said, the focus now is on broader social restrictions, such as the current stay-at-home order and forced closures of businesses.

    “The more critical thing is to assume that anybody could be positive and we just don't know that,” Das said.

    — Jonathan Lai


    Shouldn’t young people actually get the virus so they become immune?

    No.

    While young people experience serious symptoms at a lower rate than older people, there are young, otherwise healthy people who are hospitalized and who have died from the virus.

    There’s no way to tell how severe someone’s symptoms will be. And young people who themselves are healthy can still transmit the disease to other, vulnerable people.

    Plus, there would be immense logistical challenges.

    So no, experts say — don’t intentionally infect young people. No coronavirus parties.

    Herd immunity will come when a vaccine is developed. For now, follow the guidelines for preventing infection and spread, including staying home and maintaining social distancing. That’s still the way to do your part.

    — Jonathan Lai


    Protecting yourself

    How can I protect myself?

    The CDC recommends these hygiene measures that will help protect you from all airborne viruses:

    • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. Here’s why soap works so well.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
    • Avoid crowds. Maintain a distance of at least six feet with people outside your home. Coronavirus symptoms don’t have to be present for a person to carry the virus, and spread it.
    • Stay home when you are sick. In a family in which one member is ill and the others are feeling well but under quarantine, it’s best for the sick person to stay in their own room as much as possible.
    • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
    • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

    Can I get the coronavirus from mail or food delivery?

    Theoretically, but that risk is very small. The primary way the virus is spread is person-to-person contact and respiratory droplets, and there is no evidence that it is transmitted through food. Even studies showing the virus can survive on some surfaces for several days do not necessarily show that it is a real danger of infection.

    And there are ways you can minimize that risk further, such as by requesting contact-less delivery, wiping down packaging, and, as always, washing your hands before eating food or touching your face.

    — Jonathan Lai


    How do I protect myself when going out to the grocery store or pharmacy?

    Social distancing and hand hygiene are the things to remember when going out, said Jen Caudle, a family physician and professor at Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine. Consider doing bigger shops less frequently, to reduce your exposure.

    “Do not stand right behind someone in line. Put distance between yourself. Don’t walk down aisles where there’s a million people,” Caudle said. Stores have begun putting down tape for customers to stand six feet apart from each other and installing plastic or glass dividers at cash registers.

    You can also take measures such as wiping down grocery cart handles or wearing gloves. Go at off-peak hours, and carefully wash groceries, bags, and countertops.

    Minimize the number of things you touch, such as door handles, and use a paper towel that you then throw out, Caudle said. But you’ll still touch things. You’ll still interact with other people, such as cashiers.

    “This is where the handwashing and the avoid-touching-the-face stuff comes in,” Caudle said. “Because we're not going to be able to not touch things. … The truth of the matter is, we have to touch a lot of things.”

    If you’re a senior, pregnant or immunocompromised, some stores may have dedicated hours to further minimize risk. Here’s a list.

    — Jonathan Lai and Anna Orso


    Is it better to wear gloves when outside, or bare hands and use sanitizer?

    It depends on the person, said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute.

    The point is to not transfer the virus by touching your face, whether by washing hands and using an alcohol-based sanitizer to disinfect first or using gloves that are safely removed before touching your face.

    That’s made gloves an attractive option for some people, but remember that you have to safely remove them after wearing them and still have to make sure not to touch your face. They aren't magic.

    “Wearing gloves should not give you carte blanche to then touch everything,” Das said.

    If you can go bare-handed and remember not to touch your face, then that's fine, she said — just remember to wash your hands and use sanitizer.

    If wearing gloves helps remind you not to touch your face, she said, then it might be worth it to wear them.

    “But the most dangerous thing is if you wear gloves and start touching everything, and then touch your face,” she said. “That's the worst of all.”

    — Jonathan Lai


    How often should I use hand sanitizer when I’m outside?

    There's no hard and fast rule here. The point is to kill the germs on your hands so that you don't, for example, rub your eye and infect yourself. (This is also why experts keep stressing not to touch your face.)

    “Think about how often you’d wash your hands. Hand sanitizer is another way of cleaning your hands. I don’t want people to focus on the numbers,” said Jen Caudle, a family physician and professor at Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine.

    There are some times when you should make sure to wash your hands, or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol: before and after cooking, before and after eating, after using the bathroom, and after being outside.

    “Use your judgment,” Caudle said, “And it’s better to err on the side of too much than too little.”

    — Jonathan Lai


    If I run out of hand soap, can I use dish soap? Shampoo? Laundry detergent?

    Check the ingredients, said Jayatri Das, chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute.

    Things that are soaps and detergents will work, she said, because of the chemistry of them: They break up lipid particles, “those fatty, oily molecules that make up the outer shell of the virus.” So soaps and detergents will work to destroy the virus.

    That means that yes, in many cases you can use a dish soap, shampoo, laundry detergent, or something similar instead of hand soap.

    But, Das cautions, “once you get into things that are not labeled as soaps or detergents, then things start getting a little dicey.”

    The best thing to do, she said, is to look up the ingredients. For example, sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are found in many shampoos and body washes and are surfactants that will work. (They are often found in liquid hand soaps, too.)

    — Jonathan Lai


    Can I use my “green” cleaner to disinfect?

    It depends on the ingredients. Soap and bleach work extremely well, so look up the cleaner’s ingredients. (Another ingredient to look for: quaternary ammonium, found in Lysol and other products.)

    Some “green” cleaners do contain soaps, so they should be effective against the virus.

    You can also search this list of products that meet EPA criteria for use against the coronavirus.

    — Ellen Gray


    Should I wear a mask?

    Yes.

    The CDC and Gov. Tom Wolf now advise that you wear a mask whenever you leave the house for any reason. Wearing a homemade mask will help prevent you from transmitting the virus to others, in case you are carrying it but have no symptoms. Here’s a simple template for making a mask at home, even if you don’t know how to sew. If necessary, wear a scarf or bandanna snugly around your nose and mouth.

    It’s important to disinfect the mask between every use. The easiest way is to wash it with the rest of your laundry, in hot water and with soap or detergent, and then run it through the dryer.

    Even wearing a mask, you still need to practice other safety measures including social distancing by staying 6 feet apart from other people and washing your hands thoroughly and frequently. There are other measures you can take to protect yourself.

    The CDC is considering revising its guidance to advise everyone to cover their faces when in public.

    — Anna Orso


    Who is most at risk?

    As with most respiratory illnesses, health experts suspect the greatest risk is faced by older people and anyone with compromised immune systems. However, there have been fatalities among younger, healthier people, including Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old ophthalmologist, who was reprimanded by Chinese officials after warning about the disease in December.

    Evidence suggests that the new virus, like other members of the coronavirus family, is carried no more than several feet through the air by droplets from coughing or sneezing. Once these droplets land on a surface, the virus inside them can live for several days on certain kinds of materials, but most of it decays within a few hours. Still, experts recommend washing hands after being out in public, in case you touched a germy doorknob.

    So far, the infection appears to be mild in children, for reasons that are unclear.


    Is there a vaccine?

    There is no vaccine for the new coronavirus but pharmaceutical companies are working to create one. Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Plymouth Meeting plans to start testing a vaccine in humans in April. Some of the preliminary analysis took place at Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute. Johnson & Johnson is also working on a vaccine, which the company believes will be ready for human testing in the next eight to 12 months. Gilead Sciences Inc. in California is also developing a treatment drug called remdesivir which is due to start clinical trials and which the Chinese government is attempting to seek a patent on, despite it being developed in the U.S.

    Congress has struck a deal on a $8.3 billion bipartisan emergency funding package to fight the coronavirus outbreak. The sweeping agreement allots $3 billion for research and development of a coronavirus vaccine.


    Businesses and daily life

    What’s considered an essential business or life-sustaining business?

    After earlier shutting down all but “essential” businesses, Gov. Tom Wolf on March 19 ordered all but “life-sustaining businesses” to stop physical operations. Businesses that can remain open include laundromats and farms. Restaurants are allowed to open only for take-out and delivery.

    The City of Philadelphia has issued its own guidelines, also including as essential businesses any commercial establishment that sells the following: frozen products; non-specialized stores of computers, telecommunications equipment, audio and video consumer electronics, household appliances; IT and telecommunication equipment; hardware, paint, flat glass; electrical, plumbing and heating material; automotive fuel; domestic fuel; sanitary equipment; personal hygiene products medication not requiring medical prescription; medical and orthopedic equipment; optics and photography equipment; and soaps and detergents.

    —Anna Orso and Angela Couloumbis


    Can I move housing right now?

    Yes. Moving is considered an essential activity in Philadelphia, so residents are allowed to move, and moving and storage companies are allowed to operate. That’s true across Pennsylvania, too. And you’re free to move both into and out of the city. Real estate offices, agents and brokers are not allowed to operate, so you can only tour a new home remotely, by video.

    — Nick Vadala


    Are farmers markets open?

    Yes, with some adjustments. Some will continue to operate with vendor tables spaced at least 6 feet apart, hand-washing stations will be set up, and only farmers may touch the produce (customers can point at what they want). Others are operating, but items must be preordered and prepaid through the participating vendors, and pickup times will be assigned. Some have decided to close. Here’s a list of the rules for each.

    — Jenn Ladd


    About the virus

    How is the coronavirus different from the flu?

    Seasonal flu and coronavirus are caused by different viruses. That matters a lot here because this coronavirus is novel — meaning people have not encountered it before and don’t have immunity to it.

    Social distancing, which nearly everybody should be observing, is a key measure to slow down the spread of the virus, which means both less of a patient surge for scarce hospital resources, and in the long run, fewer people becoming ill.

    Another key difference: though many Americans incorrectly think they don’t need one, you can get a seasonal flu vaccination. This is reformulated every year to combat the viruses that scientists expect to be prevalent, so you need one every year. It’s far from perfect, but it is much better than nothing. Seasonal flu is now waning, but people are still getting it.

    There is no coronavirus vaccine, and despite some reports to the contrary, one is at least a year away, if not more. It’s also hard to get tested for coronavirus for all kinds of reasons. Flu tests are easy to come by.

    As for symptoms, those infected with influenza virus commonly experience muscle aches and fatigue. Those infected with the new coronavirus experience mostly respiratory symptoms, similar to pneumonia in more serious cases.

    Reports from other countries indicate that the coronavirus is deadlier than seasonal flu. Time will tell what will happen in the U.S., but officials have noted that regular flu has killed more than 20,000 Americans so far this season.


    Who is getting coronavirus worldwide?

    China is where the virus emerged in December, but the number of new cases in China has been tapering off, while the number of cases in other countries has been growing each day.

    Johns Hopkins University researchers are tallying the number of cases worldwide, including patients who have recovered. The Johns Hopkins totals are drawn from the Geneva-based WHO and other governmental sources.


    Where did coronavirus come from?

    The microbe is believed to have originated in a large live-animal market in Wuhan. Genetic sequencing suggests the virus may have jumped from a bat. Evidence suggests the virus originally could be transmitted only from animal to animal, but gained the ability to “jump” from animal to human, and now is being transmitted between people.


    Why is it called a coronavirus?

    Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, including those that cause SARS, MERS, and some forms of the common cold. They are so named because the particles have rounded protrusions on their outer edge, resembling the fringe-like corona in a solar eclipse.


    Money

    How much will I receive from the federal stimulus package?

    Most residents will receive $1,200.

    Under the bill, single adults who make an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less will collect the full $1,200. Those filing as the head of a household and earning up to $112,500 could get the full amount, too. Married couples making up to $150,000 would receive a total of $2,400. Families would also get $500 per child.

    For those earning more than those thresholds, the payments decrease by $5 for each $100 that a taxpayer’s income exceeds the threshold. The payments completely phase out for individuals making more than $99,000, $146,500 for head-of-household filers, and $198,000 for married couples.

    — Christian Hetrick


    Do I need to apply for a stimulus check?

    No. The Internal Revenue Service would wire payments to people’s bank accounts using information from their 2019 or 2018 tax returns.

    For those who have not filed for 2018 and 2019, the IRS has said it will use information from the Social Security Administration to send checks by mail, according to the office of. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.).

    The best way to ensure you get a check is to file a 2019 tax return.

    — Christian Hetrick


    When will I receive the money?

    The payments could go out as soon as early April. But for those who don’t have a direct deposit account on file with the IRS, it could take as long as four months to receive a check in the mail, according to reports.

    — Christian Hetrick


    How can I make sure my payment wasn’t misdirected?

    Under the bill, the IRS would notify you by mail within weeks after your payment was disbursed. The notice would include how the payment was made and contact information at the IRS to report any missing payments.

    — Christian Hetrick


    Do I have to pay tax on my stimulus money?

    No, they are an advanced refunding of a tax credit.

    — Christian Hetrick


    What if I have no income or am on Social Security?

    You could still qualify if you have no income, or if you rely on nontaxable government programs such as the Supplemental Security Income benefits from Social Security.

    — Christian Hetrick


    How does skipping a mortgage payment (forbearance) work?

    Mortgage forbearance programs are meant to help borrowers who are temporarily unable to make mortgage payments due to COVID-19, including being furloughed, laid off, or sick.

    The idea is to delay the payments, not to forgive them altogether. Programs differ, but options include paying the amount back in a lump sum, spreading the money out over multiple payments, modifying the mortgage, or keeping the payments the same but extending the term of the loan.

    — Steve Brown, Dallas Morning News