By Shereen Siewert

Cancellations, school closures and workplace restrictions are rippling through the Wausau area this week as concerns grow over COVID-19.

Health officials are especially concerned because little is known about the virus, from how it spreads to how long the outbreak will last. And misinformation is spreading rapidly on social media as unfounded declarations are made about everything from the disease’s similarity to seasonal flu to predictions that the virus cannot withstand high temperatures.

As the virus spreads across the country and the world, everyone will need to decide: How worried should I be about getting infected, and what should I do about it?

Health experts say preparing for a wider spread is wise, but there’s no need for panic or for hoarding large amounts of supplies.

And about that temperature thing? The virus could have a temperature sweet spot at which it spreads fastest, a new study has suggested, but experts say people should avoid falling into the trap of thinking it will react to seasonal changes in exactly the same way as other pathogens, like those that cause the common cold or influenza. The study, by a team from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, the capital of south China’s Guangdong province, sought to determine how the spread of the new coronavirus might be affected by changes in season and temperature.

The numbers

Testing is essential for identifying people who have been infected and for understanding the true scope of the outbreak. So far, however, testing is sporadic and, in some cases, sparse. Nationwide, scientists applauded a promise two weeks ago by Vice President Mike Pence that roughly 1.5 million tests would soon be available. But an ongoing Atlantic investigation can confirm only that 13,953 tests have been conducted nationally as of March 13.

By comparison, South Korea, which has one of the largest outbreaks outside China, is testing nearly 20,000 people a day. Getting more of these tests up and running would greatly increase the capacity of doctors and public-health officials to screen patients for the coronavirus and begin developing appropriate protocols, according to a group of clinical microbiologists who wrote a letter Feb. 28 to Congress complaining that the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency protocol process slowed down the ability of their labs to deploy coronavirus tests.

In Wisconsin, 273 tests were reported to the Department of Health Services as of noon on Sunday, March 15. Of those, 27 have been positive. Positive tests results have been reported in Dane, Fond du Lac, Milwaukee, Pierce, Racine, Sheboygan, Waukesha and Winnebago Counties.

Updated results are expected either late Sunday or early Monday.

Signs and symptoms

People who have confirmed COVID-19 infections have a range of symptoms, from people with little to no symptoms to people being severely sick and dying. Symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after contact with someone who has COVID-19. If you have been to an affected geographic area within the past two weeks and develop symptoms, call your doctor.

More information can be found at: CDC COVID-19, Symptoms webpage.

Prevention and treatment

There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection, and there is currently no specific treatment. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus.

Take these steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating and after going to the bathroom, blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • If you do not have soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

At this time, CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.

There are specific situations where use of a mask may be recommended. Masks may be used by well people to protect themselves or by ill people to protect others. Situations where use of a mask may be appropriate include:

  • To protect themselves, health care workers who are providing care to people with respiratory symptoms use masks specifically designed for use in health care settings.
  • To protect others, people who are experiencing symptoms of a respiratory illness (e.g. cough, fever) and are going to a clinic for medical care are asked to wear a surgical masks to prevent exposing other patients or health care providers to respiratory droplets. These are sometimes used in other public situations by ill people to protect others.
  • Health care providers may recommend that some people who have weakened immune systems wear face masks in public for protection from respiratory infections.
  • To protect themselves, healthy people may choose to wear surgical masks if they are caring for someone who is sick with a respiratory illness at home.

What should I do if I get a fever, cough, or am having trouble breathing, or need medical care?

  • Call your health care provider. Call ahead before you go to your doctor’s office or to an emergency room. Tell them your symptoms and that you traveled to an area of the world experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Do not use public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.
  • If you have a facemask, wear it if you need to be around other people.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough and sneeze.

If you need emergency medical attention at any time during the 14 days after your return, call 911 and let them know that you traveled to an area of the world experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak.

Public health staff are receiving contact information for travelers returning from China on or after February 3, 2020, and are contacting them to see if they fit COVID-19 risk criteria developed by CDC. If they meet the risk criteria, public health staff give them the following instructions (depending on risk category) about self-monitoring and self-quarantine.

Public health staff are in frequent contact with people who are in isolation or quarantine to monitor their symptoms. Just because someone is isolated does not necessarily mean they are sick.

How do I self-quarantine?

The Department of Health Services published this guide: