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Most common questions about COVID-19

UPDATED: April 27, 2020

As Kentuckians continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve tackled a number of viewer questions during our coverage. For your convenience, we’ve gathered together some of the most common questions about COVID-19 along with answers from health experts who’ve appeared on KET’s Coronavirus: A Kentucky Update:

Man getting his temperature taken

What should I do if I begin feeling sick with symptoms of COVID-19?

According to Kentucky’s Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control, if a person begins experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19 – fever, a dry cough, and shortness of breath – they should contact their health care provider by phone and discuss next steps, and also isolate themselves from anyone else for 14 days.

“If you are ill, but you would not go to a doctor except for the fact that the coronavirus is out there, don’t go to a hospital or doctor,” says Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s commissioner of public health. “If you have a small fever or a cough or body aches and think it’s just like the cold and you would normally stay home and take Tylenol, stay home and take Tylenol. If you have questions, call someone on the phone, don’t go somewhere where you could spread what you have or you could get what someone else has.”

Dr. Stack cautions, however, that experiencing severe shortness of breath is a warning sign to get emergency help.

Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, commissioner of the Lexington-Fayette Co. Health Department, explains that there are currently not enough tests for COVID-19 in Kentucky’s health care system to give to every person who has believes he/she has the disease, although in mid-April a few locations began offering them to persons experiencing mild symptoms. “As a society, we need to think about reserving those precious tests for health care workers and those that are severely ill,” he says.

How long after contracting COVID-19 is a person still contagious?

Man with infrared thermometer and mask

Research is still developing into this new coronavirus, but current studies indicate that persons are most infectious at the beginning of their illness, even before they become symptomatic, according to Dr. Kathleen Winter, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health.

Winter says that currently, experts believe that the infection level diminishes after symptoms appear, but that there is no set time frame after which a person can’t spread the disease – it varies from individual to individual. “People can still have lingering symptoms,” she says, “and it’s difficult to know right now how infectious they really are.”

How long can the virus that causes COVID-19 last on surfaces?

Dr. Humbaugh says a recent study showed that the virus could last “for quite a while” on surfaces in the laboratory. “But we think that like most viruses, the COVID-19 virus is probably more sensitive to light and hard surfaces to drying out,” he explains. “Areas that are dark and damp are probably areas where the virus may exist longer.”

Humbaugh says that most household cleaners are effective in eliminating the virus from surfaces. He recommends cleaning regularly and thoroughly, “especially high-touch areas like your cellphone and doorknob.”

What self-isolation steps should I take if I or someone I live with is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms at home?

Anyone showing symptoms needs to separate themselves from others living under the same roof, advises Dr. Sarah Moyer, M.D., director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health. “If you have an extra bedroom that you can stay in, and people can bring you food, that’s ideal,” she says. “If you don’t have that, find a separate area of the house where you can stay at least six feet away, and try not to contaminate any surfaces of other places in the house where your family members might be in contact with.

“If you’re taking care of someone who is infected, you’re considered a contact to that person,” Dr. Moyer continues. “You need to be quarantining, staying in the house the entire time the person you’re taking care of is sick, and then for 14 days after that.”

People compare the projected death rate from COVID-19 to that of seasonal influenza. Are they similar?

“COVID-19 seems to be more contagious than the flu,” Dr. Stack says. “It spreads more easily, so one person may infect three people instead of one person infecting one and a half people.”

Dr. Stack also warns that COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu. While influenza has a mortality rate of around .01 percent, Dr. Stack explains that conservative estimations for COVID-19 are a 1 to 2 percent mortality rate. “We’re trying to balance this for folks,” he says. “Eighty percent of people are going to be just fine, and maybe 25 percent of people have no symptoms. But if you are in the 20 percent of people who are at high risk, this disease can hit you hard, and it may be 10 to 20 times more deadly than the influenza virus.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, persons at high risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19 are those with the following pre-existing conditions: high blood pressure; heart disease; lung disease/asthma; diabetes; obesity; and kidney disease. Persons over age 65, those living in a nursing home or senior facility, and those with compromised immune systems are also at higher risk.

If I get COVID-19 and recover, am I immune?

Drs. Stack and Humbaugh both say that the current pandemic is still in its early stages and that researchers have not been able to determine yet if persons who get the viral illness develop immunity. However, based on past outbreaks caused by respiratory viruses, most experts predict that those infected will generate an immune response protecting them from getting the virus again.

“Some early signs where (researchers) are doing testing seem to imply that there’s an immunologic response,” Dr. Stack says, “and that’s cautiously hopeful. But like influenza, this virus may mutate, so there’s a lot left to learn about whether we are protected after we get it.”

Is it possible that the coronavirus spread will die down but then pick back up once restrictions are lifted?

Covid-19 Testing

Dr. Moyer says that by the time state government allows some businesses to open back up and eases advisories on going out in public (according to guidelines released by Gov. Andy Beshear in mid-April), certain public health benchmarks will have been achieved and testing for COVID-19 will be more plentiful.

Still, life won’t go completely back to normal until a vaccine is made available, which could be 12-18 months away. It will take cooperation from all Kentuckians – government, businesses, individuals – to maintain social distancing, practice good hygiene, and self-isolate when sick in order to keep infection rates low.

“With this, it’s a novel virus that has never infected humans before,” Dr. Winter says. “There is no baseline herd immunity – we are all susceptible to getting this virus. And because of that, we can see these very fast rates of transmission. So once a new case comes into a population that’s highly susceptible, it can take off like wildfire.”

What medicines are available to treat COVID-19? What about a vaccine?

Employee Philipp Hoffmann, of German biopharmaceutical company CureVac, demonstrates research workflow on a vaccine for the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease at a laboratory in Tuebingen

Dr. Humbaugh says that unfortunately, there are currently no treatments available for COVID-19 that have proven to be widely effective, although certain drugs are being administered to severely ill patients with promising, if early, results. For now, however, those stricken with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) are given supportive treatment and put on ventilators if needed. “Even if you’re very sick and go to the hospital, doctors will use treatments to try to keep you going, but they don’t have a specific anti-viral medication that’s going to cure this disease,” Dr. Humbaugh says.

As mentioned above, administering a vaccine for COVID-19 is more than a year away. Julie Fischer, Ph.D., an associate research professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, explains that even though a few potential vaccines have already been developed, they must be moved through a three-phase series of clinical trials before the Food and Drug Administration will approve them.

In the first phase, a potential vaccine is tested in a small group of healthy volunteers to determine if it is safe, Dr. Fischer says. Then it moves to a larger group of subjects to see if it elicits an immune response. Lastly, it goes into a third phase of trials with an even larger group to test if it offers a broad protection against the coronavirus.

“You can’t really shorten those Phase One, Phase Two, and Phase Three clinical trials because you have to wait for the immune response,” Dr. Fischer says. “We can’t shortcut biology, and we can’t shortcut safety.”

State Resources for Kentuckians

Citizens seeking assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic can contact government for information about applying for unemployment insurance, small business loans, expanded Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), help with substance use, and to stay informed of the latest news about the disease. A directory of contact information is below.

Unemployment Insurance

Contact kcc.ky.gov or call (502) 875-0442. Unemployment insurance has been expanded during the COVID-19 crisis to include self-employed individuals, independent contractors, freelance workers, substitute teachers, and childcare workers for religious organizations and nonprofits.

Persons are encouraged to file for unemployment insurance according to a schedule from Sunday to Friday, organized by the first letter of the individual’s last name. That schedule is available at the above link.

The phone number for general information about unemployment insurance is (502) 564-2900.

Small Business Assistance

Small business owners are eligible for expanded unemployment to cover themselves, and also for federal assistance through the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program offered by the Small Business Administration. Contact https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/disaster-assistance for more information and to apply.

Medicaid and ACA Health Insurance Plans

Kentuckians can apply for Medicaid through the state’s Benefind website at https://benefind.ky.gov or call 1-855-459-6328. Persons whose income exceeds the level that qualifies for expanded Medicaid can apply for individual plans offered through the Affordable Care Act at https://healthbenefitexchange.ky.gov/Pages/index.aspx.

SNAP Benefits

Persons seeking assistance through this program, commonly referred to as food stamps, can apply at the state’s Benefind website or by calling 1-855-306-8959.

Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) Program

Women who are pregnant and/or have children ages 1-5 can get formula and food assistance through this program offered by local health departments. Call 1-877-597-0367 for a directory.

Help with Substance Use Disorder

To begin the path to recovery, contact https://findhelpnowky.org/c/ky, call 1-833-8KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357) or text HOPE to 96714.

Information About COVID-19 in Kentucky

Kentucky state government has launched a comprehensive website and a hotline to keep the public updated with the latest information on the coronavirus. Go to https://kycovid19.ky.gov or call (800) 722-5725 to get news and advice.

KET’s Coronavirus Page

KET’s page on COVID-19 contains YouTube clips of Gov. Andy Beshear’s daily updates, our series Coronavirus: A Kentucky Update, KET forums on the pandemic, stories and videos from PBS NewsHour and other trusted sources, and more. Visit at https://www.ket.org/coronavirus/.