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We Answer Listeners' Questions About The Coronavirus


The World Health Organization has yet to call coronavirus a pandemic but is calling the global threat very high because the coronavirus outbreak has spread to more than 60 countries. So what does that mean for all of us? Listeners have been tweeting us questions, and NPR's Allison Aubrey joined us to answer some. Hi there, Allison.


INSKEEP: I guess this is a moment where anytime you have a cough, you're going to wonder, is this the coronavirus?

AUBREY: That's right. Here's a tweet from a listener who writes (reading) last week, I went through airports 12 times in six days. I came home with a dry cough, a fever, bone-crushing fatigue. I assume the flu, but could it be?

INSKEEP: Which is a question you could only answer for sure, I guess, with a test. Are people getting tested?

AUBREY: Actually, in many cases, the answer has been no. In fact, it was difficult to get a test for coronavirus. Up until last week, pretty much all of the testing had to go through the CDC in Atlanta. Now the CDC is starting to ship test kits to labs across the country, but it's not as if today you are going to be able to walk into your doctor's office or into any hospital and say, hey, I've got a fever, give me the coronavirus test. But there is now this realization that testing needs to be accelerated. In fact, the FDA has just given the green light to advanced labs mostly at academic hospitals to begin using tests that they've developed.

INSKEEP: OK. So unless people are truly, truly seriously sick, they'll just be sent home.

AUBREY: And the key for them is to not spread it to anyone else because so...

INSKEEP: Because you might have coronavirus if you weren't tested, I guess. OK.

AUBREY: Maybe. So stay home from work or school so you don't spread it. I mean...

INSKEEP: Even if you have the flu, maybe you should stay home. Sure.

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, it's worth pointing out that all of these respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, they're typically transmitted by respiratory droplets. You know, so when an infected person sneezes or coughs, these little droplets waft into the air. They don't travel long distances, maybe arms' length, about three feet or so. But if I, a healthy person, am standing close to you when you sneeze, well, now I can be infected. So, you know, caring for yourself when you're sick is important, but it's also important not to get other people sick. And here's the thing - they do these studies where they take the common cold virus and they stick it up the nose of people and then they see who gets sick because not everybody infected with a virus gets sick. And what they find is that if people are sleep deprived, if people are stressed, they're much more likely to become symptomatic, to get the virus. So it makes sense to focus on self-care during these kinds of times. You don't want to be anxious or alarmed but think about taking good care of yourself.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about travel where you get packed into an airplane or a train or a bus. And you're going to be within three feet of other people. People, obviously, have spring break on their mind at this point.

AUBREY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And one listener wrote, quote, "my 16-year-old son is traveling to France and the U.K. with his high school in April. Should he go?"

AUBREY: Well, you know, the decision to travel is personal, obviously. These are young, presumably healthy people the listener's talking about, so they tend to be at lower risk. Keep in mind that COVID-19 has hit older people and those with chronic medical problems the hardest. The average age of death in China from the virus is in the 70s. So this helps explain some of the CDC travel guidance. And, you know, this may all sound like common sense, but you want to avoid contact with sick people. You want to wash your hands frequently. I know we say this a lot, but here's Seth Cohen - he's an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington Medical Center - to explain why it's so important.

SETH COHEN: Most of the respiratory viruses and other infections that you pick up while traveling are through touching contaminated surfaces. And then we unconsciously touch our eyes or our nose or our mouth multiple times an hour.

AUBREY: So keep your hands clean. Stop touching your face. That can help you avoid getting a virus.

INSKEEP: If you make that choice to be on the airplane and you're close to other people, what do you do then?

AUBREY: Well, personally, I know I like to wipe down the tray tables, given what we know about the contaminated surfaces. I asked Seth Cohen about this and he says, you know, it can't hurt. You can't expect to sterilize everything around you. So I asked him what he does on airplanes.

COHEN: I make sure to bring alcohol-based hand sanitizer with me, and I am frequently washing my hands before or after going to the bathroom. I try my best not to shake hands with other passengers. So during cold and flu season, what I've essentially done is started doing fist bumps.

AUBREY: So you may want to consider, you know, some kind of no-touch salutation. There's the elbow cross...

INSKEEP: The old elbow thing. Yeah.

AUBREY: Yeah, yeah, something like that.

INSKEEP: All right, another quick travel question - is there anything you can do beforehand to be prepared in case you get sick while you're moving about?

AUBREY: You can check your health insurance to see if it includes international travel coverage. Also think about getting travel health insurance. And if you're traveling to a place where care is not likely to be up to U.S. standards, consider buying medical evacuation insurance. A medical evacuation can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

INSKEEP: Last couple of days, I've been in conversations where people have been talking about what they should buy or have in case they get sick at home.

AUBREY: Think about this the way you would think about a big snow storm or a hurricane. If it never hits, great, but if it does, you'll want to be prepared. So think about what you need in your home if you couldn't go to the grocery for a week. You may want to stock up on some food. No need to hoard, but each time you go to the grocery, buy a few extra items. Check the medicine cabinet. Make sure you have basic things like aspirin or ibuprofen. Make sure your prescriptions are filled.

INSKEEP: OK. And what if you have kids at home?

AUBREY: If an outbreak happens, schools may close, so think about a backup plan for that. Maybe you ask your employer about a work-from-home option. This doesn't work for everybody. I mean, if you're a restaurant worker, that's not an option. But these things could pay off if an outbreak happens.

INSKEEP: Allison Aubrey, elbow bump.

AUBREY: All right. Here you go, Steve. All the way over, all right (laughter).

INSKEEP: Thank you. Thank you very much. That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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