What you should know about coronavirus or COVID-19 in Colorado

Don't panic. UCHealth experts are ready and providing answers to your questions.
February 27th, 2020
hand washing helps prevent coronavirus or flu
Washing hands frequently with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases including the flu, colds and coronavirus. Photo: Getty Images.

UCHealth doctors and experts on infectious diseases continue to monitor the new coronavirus, now dubbed COVID-19, that originated in Wuhan, China. The illness is spreading from human to human in countries across the world, but there’s no need to panic.

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The United States and Colorado both have a relatively small number of patients who are infected with the new coronavirus. But, the disease is causing deaths, illnesses and major upheaval economically in many countries. So, UCHealth experts are doing all they can to prepare in case there’s a large outbreak of COVID-19 in Colorado.

For those who have questions about COVID-19, Dr. Michelle Barron, medical director of infection control and prevention at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, provides answers.

What is COVID-19? Are there other coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are very common and many don’t cause serious illnesses. In fact, the common cold is a type of coronavirus. So, it’s possible for a person test to positive for coronavirus, but not to have the new type, COVID-19. Infectious disease experts believe that COVID-19 jumped from animals to people in Wuhan, China. It then began spreading from human to human in China in December and since has been spreading around the globe.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

How long does it take for symptoms to occur after exposure to the virus?

At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that COVID-19 may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days after exposure.  

How does COVID-19 spread?

The virus spreads from person to person. According to the CDC, the virus appears to spread:

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
  • Via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Is COVID-19 contagious before a person is even sick?

Researchers are working to answer this question. It’s not clear yet, but some people say they had no fever or other symptoms before they later got sick and tested positive for COVID-19. In the meantime, some of these people appear to have transmitted the illness to other people.

What can you do to help prevent the spread of coronavirus?

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Wash for at least 20 seconds before you eat, after your sneeze and after using the bathroom.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers in addition to hand-washing.
  • Regularly clean surfaces like counters and your mobile phone.
  • Avoid community candy jars and be careful at buffets where many people touch surfaces or utensils.
  • Sneeze and cough into a sleeve rather than into your hand or the air.
  • Avoid contact with anyone with cold or flu symptoms.
  • Stay home from work or school if you are sick.
  • If you’re sick or you are immune-compromised, avoid places with large numbers of people.
coronavirus or COVId-19 in Colorado
Coronaviruses can cause illnesses as simple as colds. But, the new coronavirus, also called COVID-19, is spreading around the world. Photo: Getty Images.

What happens if I get COVID-19?

Health officials have standard protocols when anyone with an apparently contagious illness arrives at a health care facility.

“We put them in isolation. It’s similar if they have the flu. Anyone coming in contact with that patient will be wearing a gown, gloves and a mask. We do that if we suspect you have any virus,” Barron says. “It’s assumed that if you have the flu, you can give me the flu. But, I won’t know until I test you.”

How long does it take to recover from COVID-19?

Most people who fall ill recover within two weeks. People with more severe cases generally recover in three to six weeks.

What kind of test is there for COVID-19?

The CDC has developed a new laboratory test kit and distributed it across the U.S. The first kits the CDC distributed did not work properly. Officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are now able to complete tests for COVID-19. Dr. Barron said test results are now coming back wihin 24 to 48 hours.

Is there a vaccine to prevent COVID-19?

Health experts are working to create a vaccine and hope to begin testing it within months. But, it may take about a year to fully develop and test a vaccine to prevent the spread of the illness.

Do masks work? Should I get some?

No, Barron says.

It’s better to save the masks for medical professionals who need them and get special training on how to wear masks properly with gowns, gloves and other protective equipment.

People who are not sick have a greater likelihood of staying well if they wash their hands frequently and clean surfaces that they touch regularly, like cell phones. People who are sick sometimes wear masks to keep from coughing or sneezing on others. But those who are sick should generally stay home, avoid crowds and should cough or sneeze into their sleeves or elbows.

Why do some people with COVID-19 get sicker than others?

As with all viruses, some people are more vulnerable than others. According to data from China, the most vulnerable people include those with heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity.

Still, illnesses affect people differently, so health officials have much to learn about how COVID-19 is affecting people. For instance, Barron said, the H1N1 strain of the flu was particularly hard on relatively healthy people in their 20s.

“You need your immune system for protection, but sometimes the immune system can get tricked when you’re young. Instead of sending out the army, it sends out the nuclear weapons and a healthy person can get sicker than an 80-year-old. The 80-year-old might have some troops, but not the nuclear option,” Barron said.

If a young person’s body triggers the nuclear option, there can be collateral damage and they can get very, very sick.

Time will tell why COVID-19 has affected various people differently. Early reports in China indicated more deaths among older men. There is a high rate of cigarette smoking among older men in China and previous harm to their lungs may have made them more vulnerable. But, some younger people also have died. Among the most tragic was a 34-year-old Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who was punished for trying to warn people about the dangers of the new coronavirus when it first appeared in Wuhan.

Should I travel right now?

The CDC has expanded travel warnings to include countries beyond China. The CDC is now recommending against non-essential travel to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. Click here for updates. In addition, people with chronic health conditions should also consider postponing travel to Japan. The CDC says travelers should reconsider any cruise ship travel to or within Asia.

The CDC does not recommend masks for travelers.

Is COVID-19 seasonal like the flu? Will the illnesses slow down in the spring and summer?

Experts don’t know the answer yet, Barron said.

They expect to learn much more about this coronavirus in the coming weeks and months.

If I get COVID-19, could I get it again?

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading experts on infectious disease in the U.S., and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, once a person has contracted the new coronavirus, they cannot become infected again.

Should I worry more about COVID-19 or the seasonal flu?

If you live in Colorado, you have a much greater chance now of getting the flu rather than the new coronavirus. During this year’s flu season, an estimated 26 million people across the U.S. have gotten the flu and, here in Colorado, three children have died.

Barron encourages everyone to get their flu shots. Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19.

“The flu has been overshadowed by COVID-19,” Barron said. “It’s highly contagious and we’re not slowing down in terms of admissions.”

Like the flu, COVID-19 appears to be highly contagious. If the new coronavirus becomes widespread in the U.S. or in Colorado, then people will have to do more to avoid getting sick. Experts don’t yet know the death rate for COVID-19. While early reports from China indicated that about 2% of those who tested positive had died, and the World Health Organization said a “crude estimate” showed about 3.4% had died, those figures did not include thousands of people who had mild cases and were never tested. Once better data are available, Barron thinks it’s likely that the death rate of COVID-19 may be closer to about .2%, which is similar to the death rates for the seasonal flu. Typically, that rate is about .1%. This year’s flu season has been especially hard on children, whereas COVID-19 appears to be much harder on older adults.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.