A new type of coronavirus, first reported in China in late 2019, has led to a global pandemic.
The virus is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The World Health Organization named the disease the virus causes COVID-19, and it is responsible for hundreds of thousands of cases worldwide. Tens of thousands of people have died.
What is the virus, and how is it causing widespread illness and death?
Understanding Coronavirus: What Is SARS-CoV-2?
A “novel coronavirus” – such as SARS-CoV-2 – is one that has not previously been identified in humans. The outbreak began in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, in late 2019.
COVID-19, the disease SARS-CoV-2 causes, is a respiratory illness that can cause mild symptoms in some people. It also can lead to more serious complications, like pneumonia, and can be deadly.
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What Causes Coronavirus to Spread?
Coronaviruses are common in animals, including bats, camels, cattle, and cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In rare cases, those viruses can spread to humans. The original source of SARS-CoV-2 is unknown.
Once infected, people also can spread the virus. This usually occurs when an infected person is in close contact with an uninfected person. That can happen in houses, offices, public transportation, and more. The CDC defines close contact as within 6 feet.
The disease is thought to be spread when the infected person coughs or sneezes. This releases droplets that can land in the mouth or nose or be inhaled by someone nearby.
It is presumed that SARS-CoV-2 also can spread if people touch an infected surface or object and later touch their mouth, nose, or eyes.
According to the CDC, people are most contagious when they are showing symptoms. However, it also is possible for people who aren’t showing symptoms to spread the disease.
Who Is at Risk of Infection with SARS-CoV-2?
People who live, work, or travel in the regions where COVID-19 is spreading widely are at risk of catching the disease themselves.
It spreads mostly when an uninfected person comes into close contact (within 6 feet) of an infected person.
People of older age and with medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, liver disease, and HIV, appear to be at greater risk of complications if exposed to the virus.
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The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other respiratory illnesses like the cold and flu. The most common include:
- Shortness of breath
Other symptoms are similar to viruses like the common cold and influenza (flu).
According to the CDC, symptoms can appear anywhere from 2-14 days after exposure. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, even life-threatening.
Because the disease’s symptoms mirror other illnesses, laboratory tests are necessary for diagnosis.
UPMC has developed a test for the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — and will use this test to diagnose select, symptomatic cases. UPMC testing is not open to the general public.
What Treatment Is Available for COVID-19?
No approved treatments are available yet for the disease, but scientists are working to find one.
Supportive care is most important for people who are infected. People who have the disease should get treatment for their symptoms. People with severe symptoms should seek optimized care, according to the WHO.
Can SARS-CoV-2 Be Prevented?
The best way to prevent SARS-CoV-2 is avoiding exposure to the virus. But according to the CDC, you can take other precautionary methods:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Wash your hands, especially before touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Use soap and water, and wash for at least 20 seconds. Washing your hands is especially important before eating, after using the bathroom, and after blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable.
- If you’re sick, stay home.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue, and throw the used tissue away.
- Clean and disinfect regularly used objects and surfaces.
Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask. The CDC does not recommend using a facemask if you are well to protect against respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
Social distancing, the act of avoiding large crowds, also may help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
About Infectious Diseases
If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. We have specialty units for prevention and treatment of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, and illnesses caused by international travel. Our faculty research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods.