Coronavirus in the U.S.: How to Prepare

February 28, 2020

Health experts are warning the disease will spread. Here are some simple steps you can take to protect your family.

UPDATED April 1, 2020

Help UNICEF be there for vulnerable children around the world during the coronavirus global health emergency. Your support is urgently needed. 

With one third of the world's population living under coronavirus restrictions, each day brings more unsettling news of the global pandemic. Countries worldwide are in lockdown mode, with 188 closing schools nationwide, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth. World Health Organization (WHO) officials are “deeply concerned” about the “rapid escalation and global spread” of the outbreak, predicting that global infections will surpass 1 million.

“Over the past five weeks, we have witnessed a near exponential growth in the number of new cases, reaching almost every country, territory and area,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing at the organization’s Geneva headquarters. 

Despite the daily reports of new cases, experts urge people to stay calm and take these practical measures to protect themselves and others: Wash hands frequently, practice physical distancing and look to trusted sources like WHO and the CDC for the latest news on how to stay safe.

How to protect yourself and your family from coronavirus

  • Wash hands often and well. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow.
  • Keep your distance from anyone who has cold or flu-like symptoms.
  • Contact your health care provider if you have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing.

What is coronavirus?

According to the WHO, coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from colds to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV)A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. The new (novel) coronavirus sparking panic around the world today was first detected in Wuhan City, in China's Hubei Province. Though commonly known today as coronavirus, its official name is “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes is called “coronavirus disease 2019” or “COVID-19” for short.

What is a pandemic?

According to the WHO, a pandemic is a disease that spreads worldwide. With the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 approaching 1 million, and over 40,000 reported deaths, staying calm may take concerted effort. 

For context, the last time a pandemic occurred was in 2009, when the H1N1 flu pandemic killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people globally in one year. 

In declaring the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, Dr. Tedros said, “All countries can still change the course of this pandemic....We're in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world.” 

How can you do your part? Seek out the advice of experts and fight misinformation. Here, to set the record straight, is advice from the WHO and other trusted sources about how to keep everyone safe. 

How does the coronavirus spread?

You can catch the coronavirus if you are within six feet of an infected person when they sneeze or cough and their respiratory droplets end up in your mouth, nose or eyes. 

If you start to feel sick and experience any coronavirus symptoms — fever, cough or difficulty breathing — call your health care professional. Stay home except to get medical care. If you are coughing or sneezing, stay at least six feet away from others to keep them safe.  

Proper respiratory hygiene — coughing or sneezing into your elbow or a tissue — and frequent, thorough handwashing can help keep everyone safe. Also reassuring is that the coronavirus is not airborne. There may be some confusion on this score, because health care workers are urged to take special "airborne" precautions when performing specific procedures on patients who are very ill, particularly those who are intubated. 

Should I wear a mask if I'm not sick?

No. Global shortages fueled by rising demand, hoarding and misuse endanger the medical professionals we rely upon to care for the sick. The WHO only recommends the use of medical masks by people who are sick and those caring for them.

The WHO is now working with governments, manufacturers and the Pandemic Supply Chain Network to boost production of all personal protective gear and secure supplies. But, said Dr. Tedros during WHO's March 3 COVID-19 briefing, "This cannot be solved by WHO alone, or one industry alone. It requires all of us working together to ensure all countries can protect the people who protect the rest of us."

Despite popular belief, masks should only be worn by people who have coronavirus or those who are treating the sick. Above, women and children line up outside a hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. © UNICEF/UNI288092/Chhin Sothy/AFP-Services

How long does the coronavirus last?

Fourteen days is considered the upper end of the incubation period. But most people will show symptoms five or six days after being infected. People who develop coronavirus will be sick for a matter of weeks.   

Up to 80 percent of the people who are infected by the coronavirus will develop a mild case. The 20 percent who contract a severe case of the disease will require hospitalization and advanced care. Particularly vulnerable are those with underlying medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease. But so far, many have gone on to recover when treated in a properly equipped health care facility.   

Coronavirus vaccine progress

While the CDC has developed a test to diagnose COVID-19, there is no vaccine yet. However, there are more than 20 vaccines in development. That work is grounded in the outbreaks of two other coronaviruses, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). SARS emerged in Asia in late 2002 and rapidly spread to two dozen countries before it was contained. Since 2004 there have been no new cases. MERS, a viral respiratory disease first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, is still active. In the eight years since MERS first appeared, it has spread to over 27 other countries, with 2,499 confirmed cases and 861 deaths as of late 2019.

Work that’s been done on those pathogens will help scientists develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus, COVID-19. At the same time, scientists are seeking effective treatments with some success. The National Institutes of Health announced that clinical trials for the antiviral drug remdesivir are now underway. Originally used to treat Ebola, remdesivir, which was developed by Gilead Sciences, shows promise.

Says WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward: "There is only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy and that’s remdesivir."

Preparedness plan

Planning for the coronavirus isn't any different from preparations you might make to keep your family safe during other types of emergencies. As families who are sheltering in place know, having a first aid kit — including a working thermometer — a well-stocked pantry and several reliable grocery delivery options makes daily life easier. But the suspension of life as we knew it can make coping tough.

More than 1.5 billion learners around the world have been affected by school closures to date. With schools closed across the U.S. requiring children to learn remotely, parents and children must find new ways to work and learn together during a time of extreme anxiety.

When talking to children about coronavirus, listen to their concerns and give them enough information to relieve their stress. If you don't know the answer to their questions, look it up together using trusted sources like the WHO and UNICEF, and offer reassurance.

According to Dr. Ronald Kleinman, Physician-in-Chief, Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, "It’s important to remember that, for the most part, children have a milder illness. And, just as it is with adults, those children most at risk for having serious forms of the illness are those whose immune systems are compromised either because they are on medicines to suppress their immune systems or they’ve got an underlying lung disease, such as cystic fibrosis." 

That doesn't mean that children won't feel scared. Ask them what they've heard, then let them know that you have all the facts about how to stay safe. It may be helpful to talk to them about emergency preparedness in general to normalize any contingency plans you're making. And if they start to feel stressed, hear them out, then redirect them back to the things they can control: schoolwork, chores, making plans with their friends and, most important of all, having fun. 

A shipment of UNICEF supplies – 10,861 protective suits, 1,577 surgical masks and 18,371 respiratory masks – arrived in late January at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai to support China’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. © UNICEF/UNI284466/

UNICEF's response

By the time the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency on January 30, UNICEF had already rushed the first shipment of 6 metric tons of medical supplies to aid response efforts. Despite the escalating crisis' disruption to transport, the UNICEF Supply Division, which can ship lifesaving goods anywhere in the world within 48 to 72 hours, continues to get health workers the protection they need to fight the potentially deadly virus. As of the end of March, UNICEF has shipped more than:

  • 4.27 million gloves
  • 573,300 surgical masks
  • 98,931 N95 respiratory masks
  • 156,557 surgical gowns
  • 12,750 goggles 

"While the speed and scale of the outbreak is posing countless challenges, we continue employing every effort to ensure that UNICEF supplies reach those in need as quickly as possible," said Etleva Kadili, UNICEF's Director of Supply Division in Copenhagen. "Protecting health care workers remains a top priority. These are the heroes on the frontline who continue to tirelessly provide care and support to children and families affected in this unprecedented global crisis."

UNICEF is also leading on preventative actions in communities across the affected countries with risk communication, providing hygiene and medical kits to schools and health clinics and monitoring the impact of the outbreak to support continuity of care, education and social services.  

At a press briefing on March 25, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined UNICEF and other UN agency chiefs to launch a $2 billion appeal to help vulnerable nations, especially those with weaker health care systems, and conflict-torn countries battle the pandemic.  

“For children on the move or living through conflicts, the consequences will be unlike any we have ever seen,” warned UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, who says children are “the hidden victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.... We must not let them down.”

Help UNICEF be there for vulnerable children around the world during the coronavirus global health emergency. Your support is urgently needed.