Below you will find a summary of what we know and don’t know about the novel coronavirus disease called COVID-19, with the understanding that many questions remain unanswered because of incomplete scientific information, and this is an evolving situation. We’ll update the FAQs as new information becomes available.
Note: If you have questions related to COVID-19 that aren't addressed here or you're looking for medical guidance (e.g., whether you should be tested, how to go about getting tested, etc.), contact your physician and/or health department. Minnesota residents can reach the Minnesota Department of Health's COVID-19 Hotline at (651) 201-3920.
COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions
Last updated February 20, 2020
- What is the COVID-19 virus?
- What are the symptoms of COVID-19, and how severe is the illness?
- How is the virus transmitted? Does it spread from person to person?
- How easily does the virus spread?
- Should I avoid contact with certain types of animals?
- What should I do if I have recently traveled to China?
- How do you test a person for infection, and how quickly are results known?
- How can I reduce my exposure?
- Is there a treatment for COVID-19?
- How long can the virus persist in the environment?
- Should the general public be using surgical masks or N95 masks?
- What travel precautions should be considered at this time?
- When can we expect a vaccine?
- What other resources are available?
- References / sources
1. What is the COVID-19 virus?
The pathogen that causes COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that was first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. The virus is spreading in China and has caused illnesses in at least 24 other countries (as of Feb 11), including the United States. The organism is a member of a family of viruses that also cause the common cold and other respiratory illnesses, including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2002, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which first appeared in 2012. Coronaviruses get their name from their crown-like appearance—"corona" in Latin refers to a crown or garland. Many of the early COVID-19 infections were identified in people who had a connection to a seafood market that also housed live animals, suggesting that the virus originated in animals. Because the virus is so new, information about it is limited. The virus is also called SARS-CoV-2.
2. What are the symptoms of COVID-19, and how severe is the illness?
Symptoms can include a cough, runny nose, fever, and shortness of breath. They may range from mild to severe. In severe cases, pneumonia and other complications can develop and can sometimes lead to death, especially in older adults and those with underlying health conditions. The proportion of severe cases is not yet clear, but reports from China suggest that the case-fatality rate thus far has been between about 2% and 3%, with rates highest in Wuhan and Hubei province (home of Wuhan) but lower elsewhere. Researchers at Imperial College London, however, recently estimated the overall case-fatality ratio at 1%. Experts say it is too early to estimate case-fatality rates with confidence, because there is much uncertainty about the true numbers of cases and deaths.
3. How is the virus transmitted? Does it spread from person to person?
It appears that the virus can spread among people in close contact, meaning less than 6 feet apart, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus is thought to be carried by droplets produced when sick people cough or sneeze, as occurs with influenza and other respiratory pathogens. The droplets may reach other people’s noses, mouths, or eyes, and they may possibly be inhaled as well. It is not yet known whether you can contract the virus by touching a contaminated object and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. With most respiratory viruses, people are most likely to pass the virus to others when they are sickest, but with COVID-19, cases have been reported of transmission from people who were infected but not yet sick, that is, during the incubation period.
4. How easily does the virus spread?
Just how easily the virus can spread is not yet clear. But a recent study that focused on the first 425 cases in China suggested that the virus has a basic reproductive value of 2.2, meaning that each case-patient could spread the virus to about two other people. Theoretically, this would make the virus more contagious than the 1918 influenza virus, which had a basic reproductive value of 1.8. But these results were preliminary, and various other factors, including public health measures such as quarantine, influence the spread of a disease. Research on this question is ongoing.
5. Should I avoid contact with certain types of animals?
Coronaviruses circulate in many kinds of animals, such as camels, cattle, cats, and bats, and in rare cases they can jump to people. For example, the original SARS virus in 2002 and 2003 spread from civet cats to humans in China. The COVID-19 virus seems to have emerged from an animal source, as noted above, but it is now spreading from person to person. There is no evidence thus far of any animals or pets in the United States being infected with the virus or spreading it to humans. But the CDC advises that if you travel to China, you should avoid animals, both alive and dead. Also, if you visit an animal market in an area where COVID-19 cases have occurred, it’s best to avoid any direct contact with animals or surfaces in contact with animals.
6. What should I do if I have recently traveled to China?
The CDC advises that if you have been in China and have a fever, cough, or trouble breathing within 14 days of leaving China, you should avoid any contact with others and seek medical advice. If you go to a clinic or emergency room, you should call ahead and tell them about your recent travel and symptoms. In addition, use a tissue or your sleeve to cover a cough or sneeze, and wash your hands often. Be aware that travelers arriving in the United States from China are now being screened at US airports. Depending on their travel history and symptoms, such travelers may be placed in isolation immediately, or they may be required to limit their activities and be monitored by public health officials for 2 weeks. Other countries may have somewhat different guidelines and requirements for travelers arriving from China.
7. How do you test a person for infection, and how quickly are results known?
The CDC has devised a DNA test that uses a technique called polymerase chain reaction to detect the virus in respiratory secretions, such as nasal or oral swabs. Initially the CDC was the only public health agency in the United States able to use the test, but soon the agency will send test kits to public health labs across the country. Similar tests are being used in China and other countries. When US doctors suspect someone is infected with the virus, they will contact a local public health lab or the CDC to arrange for testing.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
- Avoid contact with people who are sick
- Stay home if you are sick
- To keep from spreading viruses to others, cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or a flexed elbow, and then throw the tissue in the trash
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Clean and disinfect often-touched surfaces with a household cleaning spray or wipe
- Don’t consume raw or undercooked animal products
See question 11 below for advice about the use of surgical masks (face masks).
9. Is there a treatment for COVID-19?
There is as yet no specific medicine approved to treat COVID-19 patients, but supportive care is used to relieve and treat symptoms like coughing, sneezing, and fever. Antibiotics are not effective because they work only against bacterial infections, not viruses. An experimental antiviral drug called remdesivir has been used on an emergency basis in a few patients, including the first US patient, and it is currently being tested in a clinical trial in China. But its safety and effectiveness are not yet known and it has not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. If you think you have been exposed to or infected with the COVID-19 virus, you should seek medical help immediately, since early treatment can reduce the risk of severe illness.
10. How long can the virus persist in the environment?
It is not yet known how long the virus can persist on surfaces, but preliminary information suggests it can survive at least a few hours, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Common disinfectants can kill the virus.
11. Should the general public be using surgical masks (face masks) or N95 masks?
For someone infected with a respiratory virus, wearing a simple surgical mask can help prevent spreading the virus to others, but for healthy people, wearing a mask has limited effectiveness. In general, the CDC and WHO do not recommend that healthy people wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory viruses, including this novel coronavirus. Authorities do recommend, however, that people with symptoms of possible COVID-19 wear a face mask to protect others. Also, masks are recommended for healthcare workers and those who are taking care of COVID-19 patients at home or in healthcare facilities. Authorities do not recommend for the public the use of N95 respirators, which are tight-fitting masks designed to stop very small particles. N95s require individual fitting and are mainly used by healthcare workers to protect from both airborne pathogens and droplets.
12. What travel precautions should be considered at this time?
Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, the CDC is advising against any nonessential travel to mainland China, and the US Department of State recommends no travel to China at all. These recommendations do not apply to Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan. Be aware that most airlines have reduced or suspended most service to China. For advice on travel to other countries, check the Destinations page of the CDC’s online Travelers’ Health information or the agency’s Travel Health Notices page. You should avoid travel if you have a fever and cough. During travel, of course, take steps to reduce your risk of infection as outlined in answer 8 above. See answer 6 above for advice on what to do if you recently traveled to China. If you do get sick while traveling, tell the appropriate officials and seek medical care promptly.
13. When can we expect a vaccine?
A number of research institutions and pharmaceutical companies are currently working on vaccines for this virus, but it is likely to take many months to make one available. The head of the WHO recently estimated it may take 18 months to produce a vaccine, but that would not include licensing. An official with one major group working on a vaccine (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) recently said the hope is to start clinical testing of an experimental vaccine in 16 weeks. Such clinical testing takes time, and additional work is needed after completion of the testing before a vaccine can be produced in quantity.
14. What other resources are available?
To obtain answers to other frequently asked questions about COVID-19, check the FAQ pages on the CDC and WHO websites. The CDC and WHO offer much additional information about the virus, including detailed information for healthcare workers, and information is also available from some state health department sites. For detailed daily updates on the situation, follow CIDRAP News.
- CDC general info, details on virus spread, FAQ about respirators, and FAQs on travel
- FAQS from the CDC, WHO, and University of Minnesota, and Mayo Clinic
- Public Health Canada page on COVID-19 prevention and risks
- WHO advice on face mask use
- Jan 31, 2020, CIDRAP News story noting launch of clinical trial of remdesivir for COVID-19