Be aware that new information keeps appearing. The condition is often just called “Covid.”
The term stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019. It’s caused by the germ “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2,” abbreviated SARS-CoV-2, which is a type of virus of the group Coronavirus. Other coronaviruses cause a common cold. In 2002 a very severe coronavirus then called SARS (now SARS CoV-1) killed 25% of people who got it, mainly in south China and Southeast Asia. Another coronavirus called Mid-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) came from camels in Saudi Arabia and killed 35% of people infected. But even though SARS & MERS were spread person-to-person, they never spread far. SARS CoV-1 has disappeared; MERS mainly occurs on the Arabian Peninsula.
SARS-CoV-2 began in bats & transformed itself to spread to people and cause Covid, first in Wuhan, China, & now as a pandemic (all around the world). About 2% of people with Covid die (mostly of lung complications), but the problem is that it’s very contagious, so that adds up to lots of deaths. Among people over 65, 7%-10% may die; 5% among those who are obese, or have diabetes, chronic heart or lung diseases, kidney failure, late cancer.
Most people with Covid have mild symptoms. Many have no symptoms at all, but can still spread it. The younger the person, the less chance of severe disease, but some can still die. Some people refer to it as “just a bad flu,” but no recent “flu” ever killed over 300,000 people in less than a year.
Symptoms — The most common symptoms of Covid are fever, cough, body aches, and fatigue. An unusual and somewhat common symptom is loss of sense of smell (one woman couldn’t smell her baby’s dirty diapers!). There are many other possible symptoms like sore throat, diarrhea, and more, but they don’t point as much to Covid as the other symptoms above. The most severe symptom is shortness of breath; that’s who gets admitted to hospitals.
Symptoms begin 2-14 days after becoming infected, usually within a week. Mild cases last 1-2 weeks, but perhaps a third of people feel sick longer. There have been reports of a wide range of symptoms lasting a very long time, including fatigue, poor concentration, and more. An important point to keep in mind is that severe Covid lung damage is usually delayed until after the first week of illness, & keeps getting worse. Everyone with Covid should have somebody to keep daily contact with them, in case they suddenly become much sicker.
There are several unusual manifestations of Covid. Blood clots have been noted, in the lungs, or as a stroke (even in young people). There have also been a variety of heart problems. Toes turning red & painful is rare, but points strongly to Covid. Also rare is generalized inflammation of many organs occurring in children (without lung involvement!).
Diagnosis is made by a variety of Covid tests.
Treatment – If someone with Covid feels short of breath, they should go to an emergency room. If they can breathe OK, they should stay at home. There’s no treatment to help them get better quicker. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or other over-the-counter medicines can help with fever and aches. Nothing works very well to help the cough. Drinking lots of fluids is important.
For patients sick enough to be hospitalized, the most important treatment is keeping their oxygen levels high enough until they get better on their own. A variety of medications are used for patients in the hospital, and may help somewhat. The main medication is a steroid (usually dexamethasone), but this can make mild cases worse, so nobody should ever take it on their own.
Transmission – SARS-CoV-2 is essentially transmitted in the air. The most risk is standing less than 6 feet from someone, although if the person is talking fast or loudly or singing, huffing & puffing, etc., the virus can spread farther. Also, the virus can remain suspended in the air for 3-4 hours, so simply being in a crowded indoor location for a while can be risky. Covid is probably not spread very often by objects, so deep cleaning may not be worth the effort, although hand hygiene is strongly recommended (washing for 20 seconds, or using alcohol-based gels).
Prevention – Staying at least 6 feet away from people & avoiding crowds, especially indoors, is probably the most important measure. Wearing a mask may protect you a bit, but masks are most important for protecting others. If a person has Covid but doesn’t know it (30% to 40% of infected persons have no symptoms), the mask stops viruses from traveling far & getting up in the air. The main mask for self-protection is the N95, worn by health workers dealing directly with Covid, but there’s not much supply available (if you have one, only wear it indoors when people are around, so it doesn’t get worn out).
Vaccines — They’re on the way for everyone. They have brief side effects, but no dangerous effects have been noted. The main question is how long the protection will last. We don’t know if we’ll need ongoing booster shots, or if so, how often. At first, we’ll certainly still need to take all preventive measures as described. And unless most people get vaccinated, there will still be a lot of virus around us.
Can you get Covid a second time? Yes. There are some well-documented cases of reinfection, but not many. The problem is, we don’t know how long immunity from Covid will last, since the disease is so new. We hear about “herd immunity,” which is when so many people in a population are immune, that the disease no longer spreads. However, if immunity doesn’t last very long, there may not be any herd immunity for Covid.