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Coronavirus: what you should know

As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus strain (COVID-19) continues, you're likely hearing a lot about it. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can protect yourself.

A new respiratory illness caused by COVID-19 has been inundating the news. The new strain of the common coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China with the significant majority of cases occurring in mainland China. However, COVID-19 is expanding to other countries, with cases now also confirmed in the United States.

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of common viruses that can cause illnesses ranging from a common cold to a severe lower respiratory tract infection (like pneumonia).

“As with other novel viruses identified in the past, it’s understandable that this is a public health concern,” says Dr. Stanley Martin, director of infectious diseases at Geisinger. “COVID-19 is not only causing an upper respiratory tract infection, but a lower respiratory tract infection, which can lead to pneumonia and breathing issues.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those infected with COVID-19 are showing a range of reactions, from few to no symptoms to severe respiratory illness and, in some cases (about 2% of them), it has been fatal, but mostly in elderly people or those with existing chronic health conditions such as heart disease or cancer. Symptoms of COVID-19 include a fever, shortness of breath and cough.

“The CDC believes the symptoms can appear as early as two days and maybe as late as 14 days after a person is exposed,” adds Dr. Martin.

Since early reports of the outbreak, the CDC has been closely monitoring confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China and other countries, including the United States.

Here’s what you need to know:

You’re more likely to catch the flu

In fact, the flu (influenza virus) is a greater concern for those in the United States. In comparison to the nearly 89,200 cases of COVID-19 worldwide and its more than 4,000 deaths (as of March 11), this current flu season, there have been nearly 29 million cases of the flu, with 350,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths in the U.S.

So, if you haven’t received your flu shot, it’s not too late. Still need to get one? It’s easier than ever at Geisinger. Here’s how.

Cases have been confirmed in the U.S.

While there is evidence of community spread in the United States and elsewhere, COVID-19 still poses little risk to healthy individuals.

“Those at greatest risk for severe complications from COVID-19 are the elderly and those who have compromised immune symptoms from other chronic medical conditions,” says Dr. Martin. “Like most respiratory viruses, it can be spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so it’s important to take traditional, effective measures to protect yourself and others.”

How to protect yourself against COVID-19

Like the flu, the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is through common prevention measures. Here are some tips to keep you and your family safe:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
  • Refrain from touching your face or eyes
  • Stay home if you’re not feeling well

And if you’ve recently traveled to China (or another country affected by the virus), and feel ill with a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, contact your primary care doctor to help you determine the best course of action.

We’re prepared

Teams at Geisinger are monitoring the situation, receiving daily updates from the CDC and have procedures in place to keep both patients and employees safe.

“We’re prepared should cases arise locally,” says Dr. Martin. “All testing for COVID-19 is being conducted through the CDC, but we are able to collect the specimen and ship it there.”

Geisinger has also set up a coronavirus hotline for those with questions about care recommendations and more. You can reach the 24/7 hotline at 570-284-3657.

Are there limits on visitation?

To continue to protect our patients and members, their families and our staff from possibly contracting COVID-19, visitation in our hospitals and clinics is being limited. If you have symptoms of respiratory illness (cough, fever, runny nose, shortness of breath), here’s what to do:

  • For non-essential visitors (including vendors): Please do not visit patients in the hospital until you’re well.
  • For essential visitors (i.e. parents, spouses, primary caregivers): Please wear a mask at all times on hospital premises. Just ask for a mask from a Guest Services associate or at the front desk at our clinics or hospitals.
  • For patients with scheduled appointments: Please wear a mask at all times on hospital premises. You do not need to cancel your appointment. Just ask for a mask from our Guest Services associate or at the front desk.

Thank you for your cooperation in helping us provide a safe environment for our communities.

What should you do now?

If you have upcoming travel and are wondering about the COVID-19 risk, it is recommended that you seek out CDC guidelines for travel guidance. As the COVID-19 situation evolves, the CDC will continue to update its recommendations for travel.

“The hope now is to contain the outbreak and develop a vaccine against COVID-19 in the coming months,” says Dr. Martin. “Until then, it’s important to take precautions to protect yourself.”

While the new strain of coronavirus is nothing to ignore, your best defense again it is to follow the same preventive measures you’d take to ward off the flu this season.

For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, visit the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) websites.

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