13 Mar 2020

Covid-19: how to protect yourself and others

1:18 pm on 13 March 2020

The World Health Organisation has labelled the Covid-19 coronavirus a pandemic and New Zealand's Ministry of Health is stressing good hygiene and staying at home if you are sick.

A medical staff member (L) wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, takes the temperature of a man (R) at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on January 25, 2020.

Photo: AFP

The Ministry of Health says the WHO pandemic declaration does not change anything for New Zealand which is already following a pandemic plan. The ministry's key message is to stay home if you are ill.

"The most fundamental thing that every New Zealand citizen and other person in this country can do is to make sure that if they are unwell they do not go out and they do not put others at risk, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on 12 March. "That will be the mainstay of our collective efforts to address this challenge."

Read all RNZ's coverage of the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Doctors and the ministry are telling people who have symptoms not to just turn up at the GP or hospital emergency department, but to phone ahead or ring Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (or for international SIMs +64 9 358 5453).

Here's what you need to be aware of to help protect yourself from the outbreak.

What is Covid-19?

The Covid-19 illness is caused by a new type of coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which cause illnesses like the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Covid-19 can affect your lungs and airways.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of Covid-19:

  • a cough
  • a high temperature (at least 38°C)
  • shortness of breath.
  • tiredness

Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing are a sign of possible pneumonia and require immediate medical attention.

Other symptoms may also be present:

  • Aches and pains
  • Nasal congestion and/or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhoea

Having symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have Covid-19 as some are similar to a cold or flu. It's not certain how long symptoms take to appear after a person has been infected, but WHO assessments suggest it is 2-10 days.

The World Health Organisation's reports have shown 80 percent of those infected only a mild illness, 14 percent experience more severe disease, and 5 percent become critically ill.

How is coronavirus spread?

Coronavirus can spread from person to person, by personal contact when droplets from someone who is infected coughs and sneezes.

Droplets containing the virus also settle on surrounding surfaces. Studies suggest they may survive on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days, the WHO says. You can catch the disease by contact with a surface that has the viral particles on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

Read: How to top touching your face:

  • Touching your Face: Why do we do it and how to stop
  • WHO expert Dr Bruce Aylward said 10 percent of people who come in contact with an infected person contract the virus. An early WHO report analysing about 50,000 cases from China suggested the virus was unlikely to spread from people who are not showing symptoms.

    How to avoid catching and spreading Covid-19

    Good hygiene, regularly washing and thoroughly drying your hands, and other simple steps can help stop the spread, the Ministry of Health says.

    To reduce your chance of being infected or spreading the virus:

    • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or by covering your mouth and nose with tissues.
    • Put used tissues in the bin or a bag immediately.
    • Wash your hands with soap and water often (for at least 20 seconds).
    • Try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell.
    • Stay at least 1 metre away from someone who is coughing or sneezing,
    • Don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean.
    • Avoid personal contact, such as kissing, sharing cups or food with sick people.
    • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs.
    • Stay home if you feel unwell.

    - Sources: MoH and WHO

    Watch: the best handwashing technique

    What to do if you may have been exposed

    People have been advised NOT to turn up to a doctor's office or hospital if they are showing symptoms, but to instead call Healthline 0800 358 5453 (or for international SIMs +64 9 358 5453).

    If you may have been exposed to Covid-19 you should isolate yourself for 14 days.

    If you have returned from countries subject to New Zealand travel restrictions you should to isolate yourself for 14 days. Read more from the Ministry of Health on which countries have restrictions and what type of restrictions they are.

    Read: What you need to know about self-isolation

  • Self isolation - your questions answered
  • The Ministry of Health says if you have the symptoms and have recently been to mainland China or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with the illness, phone the dedicated free Healthline number 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 from international SIMS).

    Who is it likely to infect?

    Suggestions are that children are comparatively safe from Covid-19. The WHO reports a majority of those infected are adults, with just 2.1 percent of 44,672 patients in China with confirmed infection below the age of 20.

    Early reports also suggest that illness is more severe for people 60 years and older, and in people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease).

    In more severe cases, coronavirus can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, multiple organ failure and even death. So far the death rate appears to be between 1 and 2 percent, which is higher than for the flu.

    What is the treatment?

    There is no specific treatment for coronavirus, but medical care can treat most of the symptoms.

    This could involve prescribing antiviral medication used to treat influenza or antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections.

    What about a Covid-19 vaccine?

    This is a new virus and there is currently no vaccine available. Researchers in many countries are working on developing one.

    The annual influenza vaccine, usually available from April, does not protect against Covid-19. But health officials are encouraging people to get the vaccine this year, to help reduce stress on the health service if coronavirus cases started turning up at the same time as the winter flu season.

    Should you wear a face mask?

    Virologists are sceptical about the effectiveness of surgical face masks in stopping viruses carried in airborne droplets.

    But it can remind you to stop touching your face, so there is some evidence it can hand-to-mouth transmission.

    Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says there is limited evidence of effectiveness, but people should wear masks them if they feel that that is protecting them or if they feel they may might have symptoms of any illness.

    - Sources: WHO, Ministry of Health, Reuters