As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. You can work to better protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.
Nearly a month after the World Health Organization announced that the novel coronavirus officially became a pandemic, the United States has confirmed nearly 240,000 cases across all 50 states, and healthcare professionals have treated over 1 million confirmed COVID-19 patients across the world. As our daily lives are disrupted and nearly 300 million Americans are under stay-at-home orders from local officials, many of you have questions about the latest advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, questions about how you can navigate the reality of social distancing through the next month, if not longer. We’ve been busy talking to experts so that we can share the best tips and advice for keeping yourself and your family healthy during these challenging times, but every day there are new questions to be asked (and new advice to share), as the situation rapidly changes.
So, we turned directly to our readers on Instagram to ask what they wanted to learn about COVID-19. Most of the queries were health-related, like how to protect family members from the disease, including seniors and children. Other questions were geared toward cleaning, including concerns about using the right disinfectants and whether or not it’s safe to use DIY cleaning solutions.
To deliver the most accurate answers, we partnered with two experts: As the Medical Director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, William Schaffner, M.D., has been helping shape the organization’s response to the spread of COVID-19 since late January, when the United States’ first case was established in Washington state. We also tapped our very own Carolyn Forté, the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab, to help answer questions about keeping your home sanitized.
We hope this Q&A will help you navigate a new reality as you self-isolate at home, or navigate a new work routine.
Dr. Schaffner, to start: What’s the difference between the regular flu and COVID-19?
The symptoms of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and influenza (flu) are similar, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Some patients with COVID-19 have had gastrointestinal problems or diarrhea. To diagnose a potential case, healthcare professionals may run tests to rule out flu and other infections.
But it’s important to remember that even a “normal” flu can be serious. Since October 1, 2019, there have already been at least 36 million illnesses, 370,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths from flu in the U.S. during the 2019-2020 flu season. And we’re seeing a similar trend with COVID-19. As of April 2, 2020, there have been more than 238,000 COVID-19 cases and over 4,500 deaths in the U.S.
Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear within 2-14 days after exposure. Many people experience mild symptoms; for others, the virus can lead to severe illness, or possibly death.
Is it true that COVID-19 could cause lasting lung damage, even after we’ve recovered?
Some early studies from China and other countries suggest that some patients may have permanent lung injury after recovery from COVID-19, but these are preliminary investigations and more needs to be learned on this topic.
Should I be wearing a face mask, then?
Surgical masks are not recommended for the general public — these masks do not prevent the person who is wearing them from inhaling respiratory viruses. They only prevent those who are already sick from further spreading germs. Spaces and gaps can form around the cheeks and edges of the mouth, making it easy for air and germs to move in and out of the mask. Proper hand-washing is more effective in preventing respiratory infections.
There are two circumstances in which wearing a face mask is appropriate for the general public: If you are sick, you should wear a face mask when you are around other people and before you enter a healthcare professional’s office. If you are caring for someone who is sick and is not able to wear a face mask, wear a face mask when you enter their room.
My husband has high blood pressure. Is he at risk?
People who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19 include those aged 60 years and older; those with chronic health conditions, including heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes; and those who are immunocompromised. If you are concerned about a condition such as high blood pressure, you should be speaking with your healthcare professional.
I live with a senior citizen. Should I limit time outside the house?
If you live with an older adult, it is very important that you take everyday precautions. When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact, and wash your hands often. Avoid crowds as much as possible in order to limit the chance of infecting yourself, but also to avoid bringing it back into your home.
Understood. Is it dangerous to be outdoors in the first place, though?
Going out for a walk is good exercise and psychologically beneficial. But, avoid close contact with people who are sick, and maintain a 6-foot distance between other people. If you are age 60 or over or have an underlying health condition such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, be extra careful about being around others — either indoors or outdoors.
Current recommendations are to avoid cruises as well as any non-essential travel. Crowded travel settings, like airports or train stations, may increase your risk of exposure to COVID-19. Given travel restrictions, it may be difficult to enter another country or to return to the U.S. if you do travel internationally.
I’ve quarantined for 14 days and I’ve shown no symptoms. Can I travel to be with my family?
It’s a complicated question, because I know the person who asked this might be home alone — and the thought of having to isolate through the middle of May or possibly longer might be challenging. My first question back to you would be: Is this trip really “essential?” Are you needed to care for your family? The general thesis from many healthcare providers, not surprisingly, would be to stay at home, especially if this trip requires you to use public transportation. In a sense, you would be canceling out the 14 days of self-isolation in your home if you then exposed yourself to other travelers in a plane or on a bus.
But if you have access to a car, and can make little to no stops in public areas along the way, it shouldn’t put you at risk to seek shelter with family for the foreseeable future. Be sure to ask if any of your family members have shown any symptoms in the last two weeks as well, and if they’ve been quarantining. And remember, this should be for essential trips only: Once you’ve arrived, you should be staying and practicing social-distancing outside of your new home until stay-in-place orders have been lifted in your own region.
Should I be worried about my children — especially toddlers?
From what we know so far, most children and toddlers do not get very sick from this virus. But there is growing evidence that children can pass the virus among themselves and to others who are more vulnerable, such as grandparents and older family members. Teach your children healthy habits to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other germs: Wash your hands often. Cough or sneeze into a tissue, and then throw it away. Keep your hands out of your mouth, nose, and eyes. Children should be careful to greet grandparents and others with underlying health conditions with an elbow bump or a smile rather than a hug or kiss.
What about women who may be pregnant — or due to give birth soon?
Pregnant women and parents of newborn babies should practice healthy habits to avoid infection, like washing hands often and avoiding people who are sick. Hospitals are taking infection control precautions to provide safe deliveries. If you have concerns, you should talk to your healthcare professional and ask about any preparations you can make.
Should I still plan on going to routine healthcare appointments? And what if I am scheduled for a surgery?
The current recommendation is to postpone elective dental procedures and elective surgeries, to avoid putting an extra strain on the U.S. healthcare system. In an emergency, call 911. If you have a specific issue that needs attention, your healthcare professional can provide advice. Routine visits should be postponed at this time.
Can pets get the coronavirus?
We don’t have a lot of specific information at this time about pets having COVID-19, but most experts think this is unlikely. However, because all animals can carry germs that can make people sick, it’s always a good idea to practice healthy habits: Wash your hands after handling pets, their food, waste, or supplies. Clean up after pets properly. Talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about your pet’s health.
Will the virus get worse as we enter the spring season?
It’s important to remember that this virus was first detected in humans in December 2019, so it is too early to predict whether it will become seasonal. If it behaves like other respiratory viruses, including the flu, it could abate as the weather gets warmer; it may even become part of the usual cold and flu season. But scientists do not yet have enough information to know for certain. That’s why ongoing research to develop vaccines and antiviral drugs that are effective against coronaviruses is so important.
Does heating things — or freezing them — eliminate COVID-19 bacteria?
If you’re asking this question about food you’ve purchased at the grocery store or food you’ve had delivered, I want to make it clear that as of right now, food doesn’t have anything to do with transmitting the coronavirus. Heating or freezing your food won’t eliminate any serious concentration of a virus found on food (if it’s even there in the first place). There isn’t a single public health official or laboratory virologist who thinks food has anything to do with coronavirus transmission. In fact, freezing was never a way to kill viruses: It’s the way that scientists preserve them in a laboratory, in a freezer at minus 70, and we can thaw it out in 5 years and it’ll still be viable.
Beyond food, you have a better influence on your chances of contracting COVID-19 from inanimate objects by washing your hands than worrying about heating or freezing that item. Leaving things on your front porch is not a way to kill the virus. Keep your hand hygiene in mind when touching items you’ve brought in from outside, and dispose of any packaging if you can, but don’t stress about temperatures in this regard.
Do we know how long COVID-19 can live on surfaces?
Initial reports published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicate that the COVID-19 virus can live for several hours to days in aerosols and on surfaces. You should try to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces each day: Detergent or soap and water can be used to clean surfaces. To disinfect, use diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, or common household disinfectants, which are effective in killing this virus and can be used safely.
Hand hygiene is most important because hands are the primary means of transmission for this virus. There are many things that we can’t control but we can wash hands and keep them away from our faces.
Carolyn, what are the best products to clean my home properly?
The best thing you can use for easy disinfecting is a disinfecting wipe, like those sold by Clorox. But if you can only find disinfecting sprays, like Lysol, or multi-purpose cleaners, like Lysol and Microban 24-Hour, those could work to eliminate germs as well. For more information and a list of cleaning products that neutralizes the virus that causes COVID-19 on surfaces, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s full list of approved cleaners.
If everything is sold out, can I make my own cleaning solution to disinfect surfaces instead?
As Dr. Schaffner advises, the best options are DIY remedies of bleach and water, or hydrogen peroxide, as well as isopropyl alcohol. All work to kill the coronavirus, though they may require different dwell times. If you’re aiming to disinfect a hard, nonporous surface, these solutions are appropriate DIY fixes:
- To use bleach, mix 4 teaspoons of chlorine bleach with 1-quart of water, applying the mixture directly to the surface. You’ll need to let it sit for at least five minutes before you wipe it off.
- To use hydrogen peroxide, simply spread it on the surface of question straight from the bottle. Let it set for at least one minute before wiping away.
- To use rubbing alcohol, be sure to source 70% Isopropyl rubbing alcohol beforehand. You can also apply directly and let it sit for at least 30 seconds.
To be clear: Vinegar is not an effective disinfectant and shouldn’t be used. If you don’t have a spray cleaner or wipe, DIY solutions can be put into a spray bottle or applied directly with a cloth. If possible, keep checking back with stores as shelves are being restocked regularly.
If I’m cleaning with bleach, what should I be wiping my surfaces with?
Don’t fret about the kinds of materials you’re using to wipe up a disinfected surface, as long as they’re clean. You can use a terrycloth towel, a paper towel, or even a sponge, although I would try to use something that’s not as porous as a sponge, as they can trap germs overtime and are harder to clean than a washable cloth. You can toss a paper towel after it’s been used, or wash a terrycloth or a towel with bleach, so I would stick with that.
Should I also be disinfecting things I’ve purchased at the store?
While officials are still determining just how long the virus that causes COVID-19 can live on surfaces, I suspect that washing cans, bottles, or any kind of hard containers in warm, soapy water before sticking them in your pantry would be a good step. Cleaning gets rid of many germs, too, though it doesn’t entirely kill them like disinfecting would. Disinfecting seems a bit extreme here. If you did try to disinfect all of your non-perishables, they would need to be washed and rinsed after actually being disinfected like all food-contact surfaces should be — you wouldn’t want to accidentally ingest harmful chemicals.
How often should I be disinfecting these surfaces?
Once per day if someone in the household is sick. If no one is sick, common sense should prevail. Every few days is fine. Keep in mind that more people are home all day in the house now, when the house might otherwise be empty, so you should clean more often than you regularly do.
Can I use the same disinfecting wipe on multiple surfaces?
This is a question I had to answer myself as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread. I reached out to the research and development team at Clorox last week, and according to experts there who develop Clorox’s line of wipes, you are free to use the same wipe on multiple surfaces. Bacteria and viruses that may potentially be picked up by the wipe on one surface will not transfer to another one: These germs are killed if they are embedded in the wipe due to the high-concentration of cleaning agents there. Viruses won’t be spread by using the same wipe on multiple surfaces.
Feel free to use the wipe until all the fluid in it is used up, and it no longer leaves surfaces wet for the required amount of time, as dictated by the product’s packaging.
Dr. Schaffner, I’ve socially isolated as well as cleaned and prepared my home for a self-quarantine… do you have any idea when I’ll be able to stop distancing myself from other people?
Right now, local authorities are looking at the occurrences of COVID-19 in their communities. Once that number begins to decline, they will consider how to end social distancing. They will likely do it gradually. Pay attention to local public health authorities, follow their advice, and continue healthy habits like washing your hands and avoiding touching your face.