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The COVID-19 pandemic: What it is, who's at risk, and how you can protect yourself

Here's a breakdown of what COVID-19 is, who is most at risk of catching it, and most importantly, what you can do to protect yourself. 

Stockpiling toilet paper isn’t the answer, but frequently washing your hands is, experts say

Infectious disease experts say the best way to protect yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. (Indranil MukherJee/Getty Images)

Now that the World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, shutting down cities and even an entire country, many people want to know more about what they can do to fight COVID-19.   

Canada confirmed its first case on Jan. 25 and as the new virus makes its way around the world, here's a breakdown of what it is, who is most at risk, and most importantly, what you can do to protect yourself. 

1. What is COVID-19? 

It's the illness that's caused by a viral respiratory infection. The virus that leads to COVID-19 is known as SARS-CoV-2​​​​.

Dr. Allison McGeer, a clinical scientist with Sinai Health System in Toronto, said SARS-CoV-2 probably started showing up in China in November 2019.

The World Health Organization says Chinese officials first reported cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause to the WHO Country Office on Dec. 31, 2019. 

A woman crosses a main street in the centre of Beijing, virtually empty over the past three weeks due to the coronavirus crisis. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

2. Who is most at risk? 

Overall, 80 per cent of those who get infected will have mild symptoms, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert at University Health Network in Toronto. 

Severe COVID-19 cases are more common for those who are "older, immunocompromised and/or have underlying health issues," said McGeer. 

Visitors to Toronto’s Eaton Centre take advantage of complimentary hand sanitizer amid mounting concerns over the spread of COVID-19 on March 4, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In February, China's centre for disease control and prevention (China CDC), published a study outlining the age and gender of 72,314 people infected with COVID-19.  

The findings show that about 80 per cent of those who died from COVID-19 in China were 60 or older. 

This virus does not infect you through your skin-Dr. Alison McGeer

In Italy, the National Health Institute says the average age of patients who have died is 81, with the majority suffering from underlying health problems.

"The disease in children appears to be mild," said McGeer. 

China CDC found that only 0.9 per cent of infections were children under the age of 10.

3. How can you protect yourself? 

According to the World Health Organization:

  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Keep your hands away from your face.
  • Maintain at least one-metre distance between you and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Stay home if you're unwell.
  • Cough or sneeze into your sleeve. 

Proper hand hygiene, said McGeer, can greatly reduce your risk of contracting the illness.  

Registered nurse Barbara Brady is seen here wearing the garb that health-care professionals use when dealing with patients during outbreaks. It includes a disposable gown, gloves and a mask with a plastic eye shield. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Although using soap to thoroughly cleanse your hands is best, "if hand sanitizer is all you have, use that," said Bogoch. 

"Go for the hand sanitizer that has about 70 per cent alcohol," he said. 

4. How does it spread? 

The World Health Organization says the virus is spread from person-to-person through small droplets from an infected person's mouth or nose. 

"If you get the virus on your hands, this virus does not infect you through your skin," said McGeer. "It has to then be transmitted to your eyes, mouth or nose."  

Passengers leave Vancouver International Airport in masks during the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

That's why it's so important to keep your hands away from your face, said Bogoch. 

"It's actually hard to do that in practice, but if people are mindful and don't touch their faces… they'll come into less contact with this virus," said Bogoch.

5. Should you be stockpiling toilet paper? Food? 

COVID-19 isn't a gastrointestinal virus, said McGeer. 

"We've seen quarantines in China and Italy … but there's not been a circumstance in which there has been shortages of food or or basic supplies or life saving medication.," she said. 

Shoppers at Superstore buy paper towels and toilet paper in Vancouver on March 2, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

If you do get sick, you will need to stay home for two weeks. 

Having enough food for 14 days is key, said McGeer. You should also refill your prescriptions so you have enough medication to last through a quarantine.  

6. What are the symptoms? 

Though many people infected with COVID-19 may have few or no symptoms, the government of Canada's website says those symptoms include: 

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pneumonia in both lungs

7. What happens if you get infected?

Stay home, say both McGeer and Bogoch. 

The government of Canada website also outlines that if you need to see a doctor or go to the hospital because your illness is severe, call ahead or tell officials that you have a respiratory illness right when you arrive.  

Scientists work in the Containment Level 3 laboratory in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization's International Vaccine Centre at the University of Saskatchwan in Saskatoon. where the organization is currently researching a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. (David Stobbe/VIDO-InterVac/University of Saskatchewan/Reuters)

8. What is next for the virus? 

WHO is coordinating efforts to develop vaccines and some drug treatments are currently under investigation. 

But Bogoch said a vaccine is at least a year away. 

He said the infectious disease community believes that there are three scenarios for the future of COVID-19: 

  • It will spread around the world and burn itself out.
  • It will spread around the world and there will always be low-level transmission. 
  • It will spread globally and eventually integrate itself into the colder seasonal viruses like the influenza virus.  

"We need to develop an effective vaccine to protect communities from this infection, because it's unlikely to go away anytime soon," said Bogoch.

About the Author

Natalie Nanowski

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Natalie is a storyteller who spent the last few years in Montreal covering everything from politics to corruption and student protests. Now that she’s back in her hometown of Toronto, she is eagerly rediscovering what makes this city tick, and has a personal interest in real estate and investigative journalism. When she’s not reporting you can find her at a yoga studio or exploring Queen St. Contact Natalie: natalie.nanowski@cbc.ca

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