A highly infectious and new virus called coronavirus, known formally as COVID-19, swept across the globe starting in December 2019. Since then, there have been 3.21 million confirmed cases of the virus worldwide and 228 thousand deaths. The disease has been found in more than 200 countries and territories around the world, with Italy, Spain and the United States experiencing the worst outbreaks outside of China where the virus is believed to have originated.
This puts us in unchartered territory for all countries experiencing the pandemic, there have been different approaches to try to contain and limit the spread of the virus. Many countries are currently in various stages of lockdown and social distancing procedures to minimise the impact of the disease on national health care services. The main fear is that a large influx of cases could easily overwhelm health care services resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Understandably, many people are worried about catching COVID-19 and are turning to safety measures to protect themselves and their families. The wearing of face masks, whether homemade or medical, is now commonplace amongst health care workers and members of the public alike. However, knowing how to wear a mask correctly is vital if it is to be effective and it must be emphasised that a mask alone will not protect against the virus.
Face masks vary in their quality and effectiveness and must always be combined with other precautionary measures especially handwashing with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water, as well as social distancing and keeping at least two metres away from other people when outside of your home.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about coronavirus and how it started. You will also learn the most effective ways to protect yourself and your family from catching the virus, as well as discovering the common myths that are circulated about it. We will also explain the different types of face mask available and how to use them correctly, as well as information about the coronavirus testing procedure. Although nobody can be certain of what will happen next, we have also included some information about the current response from leading health organisations and what the next couple of weeks could look like.
- What is COVID-19
- Where Did COVID-19 Come From?
- Coronavirus Symptoms
- What to do if You Have Symptoms
- Treating Coronavirus Symptoms at Home
- Stopping the Spread of The Infection at Home
- Common Coronavirus Myths
- Preventing the Spread of Infection
- Types of Face Mask
- When and How to Use a Face Mask
- Wearing Gloves to Protect Against COVID-19
- COVID-19 Testing
- What Happens Next?
What is COVID-19
COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by the recently discovered coronavirus. Coronaviruses are viruses that circulate between animals but some of them can also pass to humans. Coronaviruses (CoV) were first identified as human pathogens in the 1960s, causing mostly respiratory or gastrointestinal infections.
There are currently seven coronaviruses known to infect humans however the level of severity varies between them. In some cases, symptoms are mild cold-like symptoms but with an added risk of severe lower respiratory tract infections in younger and older age groups. Some of the viruses, however, can cause more serious complications like croup and bronchiolitis in children.
The majority of coronaviruses are found in bats, but other animals can also pass them to humans. For example, camels were found to be able to pass on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-1 (SARS-CoV-1) can be transmitted to humans from civet cats.
The viruses are named after the Latin word corona which means ‘crown’ or ‘halo’. This is because under the microscope the virions have a crown-like appearance. The primary targets of coronaviruses are the epithelial cells in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract. The virus can be transmitted through different routes: fomites (objects likely to carry infection such as clothes, utensils and furniture), airborne, or faecal-oral.
The disease is primarily spread from person to person through droplets from the nose or mouth that are released when a person coughs, sneezes or speaks. A person can catch the virus if they breathe in these droplets or transfer them to their eyes and mouth if they have picked them up from a contaminated surface. Therefore, it is important to wash your hands regularly for at least twenty seconds with soap and clean water or an alcohol-based hand rub.
Where Did COVID-19 Come From?
The first reports of COVID-19 came from China in December 2019 as several pneumonia cases were reported to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) China office with an unknown virus causing them. On March 11th, the WHO officially declared the CoVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic and warned world leaders about the disastrous consequences of inaction.
Evidence points to the disease starting in a Wuhan seafood market where wild animals such as marmots, birds, rabbit, bats and snakes are illegally sold. These markets are often referred to as ‘wet markets’ and the animals are slaughtered on site. As the coronavirus can jump from animals to humans, it is believed that a group of market traders were first infected with the virus whilst at the market.
There is currently no confirmed animal source for the origination of the virus but there are a few possibilities. Research carried out by virologists at the Wuhan Institute for Virology point to bats as the carrier by showing that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its DNA with that of the coronavirus found in bats. A different study points to pangolins as the source showing that the virus shares between 88.5% and 92.4% of the same DNA as the virus that infects the species.
At first, the outbreak was limited to China, but it quickly spread across the world to become a global pandemic. After the initial reports, the Chinese government placed around 50 million people in the Hubei province under quarantine measures to try to prevent the spread of the virus. Following the spread of the virus, other countries followed suit including Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
CoVID-19 has a variety of symptoms that affect people in varying degrees. The most common symptoms of coronavirus are a fever, a dry cough, and extreme tiredness. In some cases, the patient may have aches and pains similar to those experienced with the flu, nasal congestion, a sore throat, or diarrhoea.
It is estimated that of those who contract the virus, around 80% of them will recover without the need for hospital treatment. This means that 1 in 5 people suffering from the disease will become seriously ill and struggle to breathe and require hospital admission.
Certain groups are more vulnerable to the serious side effects of the virus including older people and those with underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart and lung problems, or cancer. However, anybody is capable of catching and transmitting CoVID-19, even if they are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms.
What to do if You Have Symptoms
If you, or someone you live with, develops symptoms of coronavirus you must stay at home and self-isolate to stop the virus from spreading. Self-isolating means that you should not leave your home for any reason. If you need food, medical supplies or anything else you should ask a friend or family member to deliver it to your home. Alternatively, if you do not have anybody to help you various organisations can help you, who can be accessed via your local authority.
Whilst in self-isolation it is important that you do not allow any visitors into your home, this includes family and friends. You should also exercise in your garden or home to make sure you are keeping active without leaving the property.
If you have symptoms of CoVID-19 you should isolate for at least 7 days. If after 7 days you do not have a high temperature you can stop isolating, but if your temperature is still high you should isolate until it has returned to normal.
If you live with a person showing symptoms of coronavirus you should self-isolate for 14 days from the day their symptoms started. This is because the symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear. If you live in a home where more than one person has symptoms you should self-isolate for 14 days from the day the first person started to show symptoms.
If you get symptoms while isolating for 14 days, you should self-isolate for 7 days from when your symptoms started. If you do not develop any symptoms, it is safe for you to stop isolating after the 14 days.
Treating Coronavirus Symptoms at Home
There are currently no dedicated vaccines or medicines to treat the coronavirus infection, but there are some home remedies you can use if you become infected. The NHS recommends getting lots of rest and sleep, drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration (drink enough so that your urine is light yellow and clear) and taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower your temperature if it is making you uncomfortable.
If your symptoms get worse and you cannot cope with them at home or are worried about what to do, you should use the NHS 111 online coronavirus service.
Stopping the Spread of the Infection at Home
Germs and virus can easily be spread from person to person within the home, especially if you live with other people. To stop the spread of germs you should pay particular attention to cleaning around your home, with a focus on areas where germs are more likely to spread.
- Cloths and sponges. Where possible use disposable cloths or paper towels that can be discarded after use. If you are using reusable cloths, make sure they are disinfected or washed at 60C after each use to kill any germs.
- Washing-up brushes. Regularly wash brushes in a dishwasher or clean them with detergent and warm water after every use.
- Mope and buckets. Mops and buckets should be cleaned after each use. Also, if possible, use two buckets – one for detergent and one for rinsing.
- Toilets. Flush the toilet after each use and use a toilet cleaner and brush every few days. Make sure the handle, seat and rim are clean by using a disinfectant and remove limescale regularly with a descaling product.
- Baths and sinks. Frequently clean your bath and sink with detergent. If somebody who is ill has used the bath, use disinfectant to clean it.
- Showers. Regularly clean the shower tray and use disinfectant if a person who is ill uses the shower. Also, make sure that the tiles and shower curtain is cleaned regularly too.
- Kitchen. Clean all food preparation surfaces before use and always use separate chopping boards for uncooked food (such as raw meat) and food that does not need cooking (like salad).Remember to wash and dry your hands after handling raw meat and clean surfaces immediately after use.
- Floors. Keep floors clean by regularly washing them with warm water and detergent. If the floors are dirty with vomit, urine or poo they should be cleaned with a disposable cloth and then disinfected afterwards.
- Carpets and soft furnishings. To kill germs on carpets and furnishings steam cleaning if effective.
- Pets and animals. Store pet food and utensils away from human food and always wash your hands after touching animals and their food, toys, cages and litter trays.
- Toys. Keep children’s toys free of germs by washing them and putting them away once dry. Some soft toys can also be cleaned in the washing machine.
- Laundry. Remember to wash your hands after handling dirty laundry. All underwear, towels and household linen should be washed at 60C or 40C with a bleach-based detergent. Also, never leave laundry sitting in the washing machine as this is a breeding ground for any remaining germs.
- Waste disposal. Always wash your hands after handling waste and throw away rubbish carefully so that it does not attract vermin and insects. Using a foot-operated bin is more hygienic and prevents the transfer of germs from the bin lid to your hands.
Common Coronavirus Myths
To combat the spread of misinformation around coronavirus, the World Health Organisation has dispelled some of the most common myths on its website. There are many examples listed on the WHO website including the examples below:
- There is no proof that Hydroxychloroquine or any other drug can cure or prevent COVID-19. Misusing hydroxychloroquine can have serious side effects including illness and even death. There are currently coordinated efforts to find a cure to treat COVID-19.
- Pepper cannot prevent or cure COVID-19. Adding extra pepper to your food will not stop or cure coronavirus.
- Spraying bleach or any other disinfectant into your body will not protect against COVID-19 and is highly dangerous. Injecting, spraying or introducing bleach or any other disinfectant to your body will not cure or prevent coronavirus. These substances are highly poisonous and can cause irritation and damage to your skin and eyes.
- Likewise, drinking methanol, ethanol or bleach cannot prevent or cure COVID-19. Ingesting these substances is extremely dangerous and can lead to disability or death.
- 5G mobile networks do not spread COVID-19. COVID-19 is spread via respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. It cannot be spread on radio waves or mobile networks.
- The sunlight or temperatures higher than 25C degrees do not prevent the coronavirus.
- If you catch the coronavirus you do not have it for life. Once you have caught the virus you can recover from it and it will be eliminated from your body.
- Drinking alcohol does not protect you against the coronavirus. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can pose health risks and will not affect COVID-19.
Preventing the Spread of Infection
To protect yourself and others and prevent the spread of the disease there are some important precautions you can take.
- Washing your hands. Regularly wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub. You should wash your hands for at least twenty seconds, with the government advising people to sing the Happy Birthday song to themselves twice while washing their hands to ensure it is long enough.
- Distance yourself. Keep at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and others, or even a 2-metre gap to be extra safe. This limits the change of inhaling infected droplets it someone coughs, sneezes or speaks near you.
- Avoid crowds. When you are in a crowded space it is hard to maintain the appropriate 1-metre gap from other people.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. If you touch a surface that contains droplets from an infected person, touching your eyes, nose and mouth can allow the virus to enter your body and infect you.
- Practice good respiratory hygiene. When you cough or sneeze always cover your mouth with a tissue or your bent elbow and then dispose of the tissue immediately afterwards. You should also encourage those around you to practice good hygiene to limit the spread of the virus.
- Stay at home. Only leave your house for essential trips such as collecting medication or food shopping. If you do leave your home, try to maintain a distance of one metre from others at all times.
- Self-isolate. If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, however mild, you must self-isolate for seven days. This includes symptoms such as a cough, a headache, and a mild fever.
- Keep up to date with the latest information. Keep track of developments and advice from trusted sources such as the NHS, and local and national authorities.
Types of Face Mask
There are generally three varieties of face mask being used to combat the effects of COVID-19, each with their uses, benefits and potential risks.
Homemade Face Masks
Many people are turning to use homemade face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus. Usually made from cloth these masks are easy to make from items lying around in the home. Making your own cloth facemask instead of using a surgical mask or other medically graded person protection equipment also helps to preserve the supplies of these vital resources for health care staff who urgently need them.
When making your own face masks it should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of your face and be secured with ties or ear loops. It should also be made from multiple layers of fabric and allow you to breathe unrestricted whilst wearing it. If you are intending to reuse your homemade mask, make sure that it can be machine washed and dried without losing its shape or becoming damaged.
Homemade face masks can be worn when you are required to go out in public, in places such as grocery stores and pharmacies and will protect against some of the risks. It will also help to minimise the risk of spreading the disease to others when you cough or sneeze, especially if you have mild symptoms or none at all. However, there is a concern that wearing a mask can give people a false sense of security so you should always remember to remain at least one metre away from others while outside the home and to regularly wash your hands with warm soapy water or an alcohol-based hand rub.
You should also avoid putting masks on children under two years old, people who have trouble breathing, unconscious people and anybody who cannot remove the mask themselves.
If you have been outside wearing a homemade cloth mask it must be washed after every use. When removing the mask take care not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth and wash your hands thoroughly after touching it.
Surgical masks are disposable masks made to cover your nose, mouth and chin to protect the wearer from sprays, splashes, and large-particle droplets. They also prevent the spread of germs and infections of the respiratory system from the wearer to other people.
Surgical masks are made from a minimum of three layers of synthetic nonwoven materials with filtration layers in the middle. The masks are available in different thicknesses and various levels of fluid-resistance.
A surgical mask is usually rectangular with folds and a metal strip at the top that can be moulded to fit around your nose. It also has elastic bands that can be hooked behind your ears or long ties that can be tied behind your head to keep the mask in place.
An N95 respirator is a tight-fitting mask that seals closely to the face to prevent splashes, sprays, large droplets and up to 95% of small particles. This includes virus particles and bacteria.
The respirator is circular in shape and uses elastic bands to keep it attached to your face. This equipment varies in shape and size and must be tested to ensure a secure fit before it is safe to wear. Before each use, a seal check must be performed to confirm there is a tight seal (this may not be possible for children and people with facial hair).
When and How to Use a Face Mask
The World Health Organisation currently states that you only need to wear a medical face mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19 or if you are coughing or sneezing. The WHO also emphasises that a face mask is only effective when combined with other safety precautions such as frequent hand-cleaning with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.
If you do wear a mask, you must know how to use it and how to dispose of it safely after use. Before you put on a mask thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and warm water.
When fitting the mask, make sure that your nose and mouth are covered with no gaps between your face and the mask. While you are wearing the mask, avoid touching it – if you do touch it you should immediately wash your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
As you use it the mask will become damp from condensation. As soon as it is damp replace the mask with a new one and never re-use single-use masks. When replacing a mask repeat the steps listed above.
To safely remove a mask, ensure that you remove it behind without touching the front of it. Then immediately discard of the mask in a closed bin and clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
Wearing Gloves to Protect Against COVID-19
The World Health Organisation does not recommend the use of gloves by people in the community to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Wearing gloves can pose more of a risk by leading to self-infection or transmission to others after touching infected surfaces. Washing your hands regularly with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water is far more effective than wearing gloves to protect against the coronavirus.
The WHO recommends that hand hygiene stations at the entrance and exit of public places (such as supermarkets) to encourage people not to wear gloves and to wash their hands instead.
With testing kits scarce and reserved for keyworkers and NHS staff, there are certain criteria that you must meet before you will be tested for coronavirus. You can apply for a coronavirus test if you are an essential worker with coronavirus symptoms, aged 65 or over with coronavirus symptoms, someone who cannot work from home and has symptoms (i.e. A delivery driver or construction worker) You can also apply for a test if you have symptoms and you live with an essential worker, a person aged over 65, or someone who travels to work. In some cases, you may also have a clinical referral from NHS 111 online.
If you are unsure as to whether you are classed as an essential worker or not a full list can be found on the NHS website here.
If you are eligible, you should apply for the test within the first five days of having symptoms. Ideally within the first 3 days because it could take up to two days to arrange. Tests are not guaranteed, and it depends on how many tests are available in your area at the time.
There are two options for taking the test, at home or a specialist drive-through testing site. The test is simple and involves a swab from the inside of your nose and the back of your throat being taken using a long cotton bud.
What Happens Next?
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the European Commission and the World Health Organisation are working together to continually assess the situation and manage the outbreak.
There is an agreement between all involved organisations that the current stay-at-home and social distancing measures are vital in combatting the spread of the coronavirus, and that the measures will not be lifted until it is deemed safe to do so.
Lifting the measures too rapidly or too early could bring a new surge in infections which would overwhelm the NHS and cause many deaths and illnesses. Without the measures in place, it is estimated that the UK alone could see more than 250,000 people die. Meanwhile, scientists are racing to find a vaccine that is effective against the coronavirus and hope to begin human trials within the next few months. However, there is no way of knowing how soon a vaccine could be available.
Some European countries are beginning to take steps to lift their restrictions. For example, in Italy from 4th May citizens will be allowed to visit friends and family in small groups, as well as factories and construction sites being able to reopen. In Spain, children are now allowed outside once a day with parental supervision and this could soon extend to all citizens who may be allowed to exercise outdoors from 2nd May.
The United Kingdom is currently continuing with lockdown measures until at least the 7th May, but it is expected that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, may announce his intentions to ease the measures before then. The UK Department of Health and Social Care will also be conducting a study of 20,000 households in the UK to track the transmission of COVID-19. The UK will also be paying close attention to the results of other countries lifting their restrictions before it makes any changes to those imposed across England.