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What you need to know about the coronavirus disease

Symptoms of the coronavirus disease are similar to those of the flu: fever, chills, aches, dry coughing, sore throat, runny nose, tiredness, stomach upset, diarrhoea and a shortness or difficulty in breathing, according to the Ministry of Health.

They tend to start off mild and build gradually. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says Covid-19 symptoms often appear after two to 10 days, but this can vary greatly, and it warns that some infected people don’t develop symptoms and don’t feel unwell.

Most people with the disease have been adults; only 2.1% of infected patients in China are below the age of 20. The WHO says the illness tends to be more severe in people 60 years and older and those with underlying medical problems, such as high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes.

Eighty per cent of sufferers experience only a mild illness, 14% severe disease and 5% become critically ill, the organisation says. One in six people who get Covid-19 become seriously ill and develop breathing difficulties. Two per cent of people with the disease have died, and the mortality rate for those with critical illness has been reported as more than 50%. About 80% of sufferers recover from the disease without needing specific treatment; standard influenza medications can help.

The risk of catching Covid-19 is low to moderate, but the Ministry of Health is asking people to take preventative measures. The virus is transmitted person-to-person and is spread by droplets from sneezing, coughing and talking and when a person who has touched an infected surface touches their mouth, nose or eyes.

Robust hygiene is important in stopping the transmission of infection, such as frequently washing the hands for at least 20 seconds, lathering soap between and on top of the hands and wrists, and paying close attention to between the fingers and under fingernails. It’s important to use a clean towel to dry the hands completely, as wet hands transfer viruses easily. Wash hands before and after food preparation and eating and after treating a sick person, wiping a child’s nose, using the toilet, touching an animal, handling rubbish, sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose.

Hand sanitiser is an acceptable substitute for washing hands when soap and water are unavailable. Make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol, and rub as if you were washing your hands for at least 20 seconds.

The Harvard Medical School has four tips for good hand hygiene:

  • Don’t scrub: scrubbing can damage your skin and create cracks and small cuts that give viruses and bacteria a place to grow.
  • Keep your fingernails short: bacteria like the areas under your fingernails and long nails make it difficult to keep those areas clean.
  • Use hand lotion if your hands are prone to skin cracks: this is especially important during winter.
  • Don’t hurry: it is important not just to wash but to properly dry your hands.
Avoid close contact with people suffering from a cold or flu and with those potentially infected, keeping a distance of at least a metre for no longer than 15 minutes. When sneezing, do so into a tissue clasped firmly around your nose and mouth or bury your nose and mouth into the crook of your elbow and sneeze, keeping your arm close to your chest. Do not sneeze openly or into your hand, even when alone. Do not spit in public, even if you are well. Avoid handshakes when greeting others. And regularly clean your phone, computer keyboard, doorknobs and car steering wheel.

If travelling internationally, especially to a country with coronavirus-infected people, notify your workplace human resources department. You may be required to self-isolate for 14 days. Your employer is required to minimise the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace and protect workers where reasonably practicable. You have the right to refuse to go to work if your belief you will catch the virus is reasonable and not remote, but your employer can legally decline to pay you if you are still able to work and if you can work from home.

If you believe you are infected or are suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, stay at home and call the specialist Healthline number – 0800 358 5453 – to register yourself as quarantined. It’s free and available 24 hours, seven days a week. You will receive professional health information and advice on what to do from a member of the National Telehealth Service.

If you are unwell, the Ministry of Health’s advice is to minimise your use of public transport, taxis and ride-sharing vehicles. If you have to use a plane, train or bus, sit in the window seat and take the row for yourself. Wear a mask if you are frequently coughing or sneezing to stop the spreading of droplets, but be aware that wearing a mask will not necessarily stop the virus from spreading. Use hand sanitiser regularly if you’re touching shared features such as handles, poles, rails and buttons. Avoid crowded areas, especially during rush hour, and try not to use lifts. Where possible, have food, groceries and other items delivered. Keep regular eating and sleeping routines, and call family and friends or helplines if your mental health is affected by isolation.

Finally, it’s more important to get a flu shot this year, even though it won’t protect against the coronavirus. But if you do get the flu during a coronavirus outbreak, it’s likely to make you worry more and it’s likely to put more stress on an overloaded health system. As US news website Axios says, “If you’re freaking out about coronavirus but you didn’t get a flu shot, you’ve got it backwards.”

Get your hands on a copy of this week's Listener for more about what you can do to reduce your chances of being infected by the new coronavirus disease – and why you'll need more than good luck to escape its economic impact.

This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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