Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States, here’s how you can protect yourself—and others—from contracting the respiratory disease.

By Megan Falk
February 28, 2020
Serious woman
Credit: AleksandarNakic/Getty

With 53 confirmed cases (as of publishing) of coronavirus COVID-19 within the United States (which includes those who have been repatriated, or sent back to the U.S. after traveling abroad), federal health officials are now warning the public that the virus will likely spread throughout the country. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement.

Cue a surge of N95 face mask purchases, a plummeting stock market, and overall panic. (Wait, is coronavirus really as dangerous as it sounds?)

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare, in the expectation that this could be bad,” added Dr. Messonnier. With a pandemic looming, is there anything you can *individually* do to prepare for coronavirus?

How to Prepare for Coronavirus

While there is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19 (the National Institutes of Health is working on developing potential vaccines and is testing an experimental treatment on hospitalized adults diagnosed with the disease), the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this coronavirus strain altogether, according to the CDC. “There is no special equipment, meds, or tools that can protect you from the virus. The best way to protect yourself is to not catch it,” says Richard Burruss, M.D., a physician with PlushCare.

For respiratory diseases like COVID-19, that means practicing basic hygiene: avoid close contact with people who are sick; refrain from touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; disinfect regularly touched objects and surfaces with cleaning sprays or wipes, and frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. To curb the spread of COVID-19, follow the same strategies that help thwart the transmission of any respiratory disease, including covering your cough and sneezes with a tissue (and throwing the tissue in the trash), according to the CDC. “And if you are that worker who comes down with a fever, cough, and cold, do the right thing and don't go to work,” says Dr. Burruss.

And if you think wearing a face mask à la Busy Philipps and Gwyneth Paltrow will completely shield you from the virus, listen up: The CDC does not recommend people who are healthy wear a face mask to prevent COVID-19. Since face masks are largely designed to protect others from infection, they should be used only by people who have the disease, are advised to wear one by their doctor, or are taking care of those who are ill in close quarters.

How to Prepare If Coronavirus Becomes a Pandemic

Before you go into an apocalypse-survival mode, know that coronavirus isn't a pandemic yet. Currently, coronavirus COVID-19 meets two of the three criteria to be considered a pandemic: It's an illness that results in death and has a sustained person-to-person spread, but it has not yet spread worldwide. Before this happens, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advises stocking up on a two-week supply of water and food; ensuring you have a continuous supply of your regular prescription drugs; keeping non-prescription drugs and health supplies on hand; and compiling your health records from doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies for future personal reference.

If COVID-19 ultimately does fulfill the third benchmark of a pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recommends taking the same steps that are advised to prevent contracting and spreading the illness during an outbreak. Likewise, the DHS suggests practicing healthy habits—like getting enough sleep, being physically active, managing stress levels, staying hydrated, and eating nutritious foods—to help enhance your immune system so that you're less susceptible to all types of infection, including viral illnesses like COVID-19, says Dr. Burruss. All in all, these measures aren’t any different than what you should do to prevent the spread of the flu virus, he adds. (Related: 12 Foods to Boost Your Immune System This Flu Season)

“Look, the experts are still studying this virus to figure out how it is similar and different from other viruses,” says Dr. Burruss. “Ultimately, researchers will probably come up with a vaccine targeting COVID-19, but until then, we have to do everything we can to protect ourselves and that means doing everything your mom ever told you.”

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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