Updated at noon, March 11, with more audience questions answered
The new coronavirus emerged late last year in China and has since spread to more than 80 countries, including the U.S. The virus spreads the COVID-19 disease, which has killed more than 3,200 people worldwide. For many people, the symptoms can be mild, but for some, they can be severe.
There has been one confirmed case of the coronavirus in Missouri and five confirmed cases in Illinois. State and local health officials are monitoring its spread and are prepared to isolate those who test positive.
Given the severity of the COVID-19 disease, many people are concerned about the virus that causes it. Who is at risk? What can people do to protect themselves? When will schools and other facilities close? Where can someone go to be tested? How are health officials preparing for the disease?
St. Louis Public Radio is answering key questions about the coronavirus. Find answers to FAQs here.
Who can get tested?
Missouri health officials will not test everyone who is worried that they may have the coronavirus. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services only has several hundred tests for the virus and is limiting who receives one.
State health officials are only testing people who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. To be tested, they need to show symptoms and have recently traveled to an affected country such as China or Italy. If a person’s symptoms are very serious, such as having a fever over 103, they could receive a test if they don't meet the criteria, but only if state officials allow it. Local doctors send tests to the state-run lab in Jefferson City, the only place in Missouri that is authorized to conduct the coronavirus testing.
State health officials say others likely will be able to seek tests in the coming weeks. The virus has begun to spread among people who haven’t traveled or been exposed to sick patients. The CDC is sending more test kits to state labs, and earlier this week, Gov. Mike Parson said he hopes to receive federal funds that could help the state provide free tests to Missourians.
Health officials in Illinois are following a similar approach.
The Illinois Department of Public Health will only test people who show symptoms, such as a high fever or a respiratory illness (cough or shortness of breath), and have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. Illinois health officials will also test people with symptoms who have traveled to a country affected by the virus or those who have been hospitalized with severe problems, such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome, and don’t have another diagnosis or a clear source of exposure.
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What symptoms should I be experiencing before getting tested?
COVID-19 symptoms are similar to those of the cold or flu. Most patients experience mild symptoms, but in some people, especially older people or those with underlying illnesses, the symptoms — including cough, fever, nausea or shortness of breath — can be severe.
Doctors say people should seek medical attention if they have a high fever, a bloody cough or trouble breathing. Anyone with such symptoms, particularly someone who has traveled to countries where the virus is prevalent or who have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus, could qualify for a coronavirus test.
St. Louis health providers say people in Missouri experiencing these symptoms are much more likely to be suffering from the flu or the common cold.
“I’d encourage us all to keep it in perspective and compare it to something we know very well, which is influenza,” said Dr. Matt Bruckel, CEO and founder of Total Access Urgent Care.
Where should someone go if they want to get tested?
If you think you might have COVID-19, the most important thing is to minimize exposure to other people, said Dr. Melissa Tepe, chief medical officer at Affinia Healthcare.
Concerned patients should call an urgent care center, clinic or emergency room before arriving, Tepe said. Clinic workers will ask screening questions about a patient’s travel history and potential for exposure to positive cases. If the caller meets the CDC guidelines for a potential case, doctors can meet the patient as soon as they arrive to keep them away from other patients. They’ll also contact the city and state health departments to arrange for a test.
Patients who meet the testing criteria will have a swab taken from their nose or mouth. Doctors will send those swabs to the state testing lab in Jefferson City. The lab can complete the test in around six hours, Williams said.
If you’re concerned that you’re infected but don’t meet the CDC standards for testing, don’t panic, Tepe said. There’s no COVID-19-specific medicine yet, and the treatment is the same as it would be for the flu or cold. That means rest, lots of fluids and taking ibuprofen for body aches.
“If the health department will test you, great,” Bruckel said. “Until then, let’s reassure you and treat you symptomatically.”
Patients with flu symptoms should isolate themselves and stay away from older people and people who are already sick or have chronic health conditions, Bruckel said. That’s true whether they have the coronavirus or another respiratory illness.
People in Illinois cannot request a test if they’re concerned they have the novel coronavirus, a health department official said. Only a physician will determine if COVID-19 testing is appropriate. When someone is tested, the specimens that are collected are sent to one of three state health department laboratories in Chicago, Springfield or Carbondale.
Would schools in our Bi-State region send students home or close if we find confirmed cases of the virus here?
Washington University is pulling 35 students out of Italy out of concerns for their health in a country that’s experiencing the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe.
Those students will be sent home and be subject to health screenings through at least March 15, the university said. Wash U has activated its Crisis Management Team and suspended travel for students and faculty to other countries with high rates of infection. The virus had already upended students from several local colleges studying in China.
Webster Groves School District canceled a high school student trip to Italy and Greece for later this month out of health concerns. Sixty-six students will now stay home because of a CDC-issued “do not travel” alert for Italy, said district spokeswoman Cathy Vespereny.
Other schools in the St. Louis area are reminding students and families to follow good hygiene practices. State education officials distributed health department guidance to school nurses.
CDC officials say local health departments should decide whether to close schools if someone in the community, school personnel or a student is infected with the virus. In the event of health and weather disasters, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education allows school officials to shorten their school calendars.
Rockwood School District is reviewing its pandemic crisis plan, Amy Wehr, Rockwood’s director of student health, said in a letter to families. “In addition, administrators are exploring ways to provide alternate educational opportunities in the event schools are closed due to the spread of the coronavirus,” she said.
What will area nursing homes do to protect elderly residents?
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is directing nursing homes to follow the CDC’s guidelines for preventing COVID-19 infections at long-term care facilities.
At the Avalon Gardens Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in St. Louis’ Bevo Hill neighborhood, workers are following the same procedures they use to protect residents from influenza, said Marycarol Jones, the center’s administrator. But the facility’s directors are telling workers and visitors to stay home if they have any respiratory infection symptoms, and to disinfect their hands as much as they can.
“We have signs upon entry of the facility to use hand sanitizers,” Jones said. “We recommend constant hand-washing.”
If a resident shows signs of a COVID-19 infection, Avalon Gardens would have its physician assess the resident and have them stay in their room.
The elderly tend to have weaker immune responses to viruses and have been more susceptible to COVID-19 infections. At least seven of the 10 deaths caused by the new coronavirus in Seattle this week were tied to a long-term care facility.
As Kaiser Health News reports, government health inspectors have found that many nursing home facilities are deficient at following basic infection prevention protocols.
Have religious leaders taken steps to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus?
Several religious organizations and faith leaders in St. Louis have modified their practices to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis has recommended that priests and deacons temporarily stop using the shared Communion chalice and sanitize all holy vessels before and after Mass. According to the Archdiocese, congregants should stay at least three feet apart and avoid shaking hands during the passing of peace.
Leaders with the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri are asking pastors to sanitize their hands before administering Communion. The Episcopal Diocese has advised against intincting, the practice of dipping the Communion wafer in the wine. The common Communion chalice can still be offered, but it should be wiped inside and outside between communicants. The Episcopal Diocese has also encouraged congregants to wave, bump elbows or bow to each other, rather than shake hands.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has asked clergy to thoroughly wash all Communion vessels in hot, soapy water before services. Congregants may still opt to drink the sacramental wine from the common cup, though the ELCA advises pastors to wipe the rim and turn the cup between communicants. Alternatively, pastors may choose to pour the wine from the common chalice into individual cups.
The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis is continuing to hold services as scheduled. Leaders have installed hand-sanitizing stations and are encouraging members who feel sick to pray at home.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, an umbrella organization of 32 Jewish organizations and temples in the greater St. Louis region, has begun using a hospital-grade antibacterial disinfectant on all touchable surfaces.
What is the airport doing to limit the spread of the coronavirus?
St. Louis Lambert International Airport is not taking any specific precautions to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. Lambert’s public relations director, Jeff Lea, said in an email that “at this time there are no recommendations or changes to passenger protocols related to the Coronavirus.”
“The Airport will remain engaged with local, state or federal health agencies if it’s determined that any new public health measures need to be taken,” he said.
A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said in an email that guidelines for airports and travelers are being handled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency recommends cabin crews practice routine handwashing, identify sick travelers experiencing symptoms of coronavirus and disinfect contaminated surfaces.
The Department of Homeland Security has directed all flights carrying passengers from China through one of 11 U.S. airports where patients must pass health screenings. Lambert, which does not have any international flights to countries affected by the virus, is not included.
The CDC recommends passengers avoid nonessential travel to Italy, South Korea, Japan, Iran and China.
What should I do to protect myself and loved ones?
You can protect yourself from catching the coronavirus the same way you would avoid the common cold, said Sharon Frey, an infectious diseases researcher at the St. Louis University Center for Vaccine Development. Both are spread through tiny droplets of water expelled when sick people cough or sneeze.
“There’s nothing new; there are no new ideas or concepts here,” Frey said. “We all know the answer to this question, but we ask it anyway because we’re all worried.”
Washing your hands often is important, as is keeping your hands away from your face, she said. Unlike other viruses, the new coronavirus is “fragile,” which means it’s killed with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
People should stay away from others if they are sick. That means not going to church or work if they have flu- or cold-like symptoms.
Health officials also urge people to keep communal spaces clean and disinfected to protect yourself and others. Sneeze or cough into a disposable tissue or into your elbow.
“There’s an amazing spray that you cannot see that comes out of the mouth when someone sneezes or coughs,” Frey said. “You have to do something to protect other people.”
How do we distinguish cold or flu symptoms from those of COVID-19?
COVID-19 has symptoms similar to the flu's, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. For most people, these symptoms are mild. But they can be more severe in older or immunocompromised people and those with certain chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.
Because the symptoms are so similar, the only way to really tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19 is to be tested.
If you think you might have COVID-19, the most important thing to do is to stay home and call your doctor or an urgent care center. They’ll ask you some screening questions, and then a doctor will decide whether you should be tested.
Why isn’t drive-through testing set up in Missouri so people can avoid sitting in the ER for hours?
This is critical: If you have symptoms, call your doctor. Don’t just show up. If you have COVID-19, sitting in the ER for hours could expose lots of other people to the virus.
Some states, like Washington, have set up drive-through testing sites for COVID-19. But that’s not something that’s happened in Missouri yet — mostly because the state health department has been the only organization that can actually test people. The health department processes the tests at a state lab in Jefferson City, but the test kits themselves actually come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Right now, there’s a limited number of tests available, so the state is only testing people with symptoms who have traveled to an affected country, like China or Italy, or had contact with an infected person.
Why aren't there more tests being made available?
In Missouri, and the rest of the country, there haven’t been enough COVID-19 tests to meet demand. The reasons are complicated. Part of the problem, at least initially, was with the test itself, which was developed by the CDC. Early versions of the test showed inconclusive results, and that caused a bottleneck in getting the tests out to states.
The Missouri state health department says it's expecting more test kits soon, and that will probably change who’s able to get tested.
There are several commercial test kits available now, but you can’t go out and buy one. A doctor must order a test for you. Medicare Part B will cover the cost of coronavirus tests completed on or after Feb. 4, but it's unclear if those with private insurance will have to pay out-of-pocket for the tests.
Should I wear rubber gloves if I go to crowded, busy places like the grocery store or school or a mall?
Unless you’re sanitizing your gloves as often as you’d wash your hands, they’re not going to offer much protection. And they might do more harm than good by giving a false sense of security.
The main way the virus spreads is through tiny droplets that are sprayed into the air when an infected person coughs or even talks. People also can get sick when they touch contaminated surfaces and then touch their faces, which is why doctors recommend washing your hands frequently.
One thing to note here is that if you’re in a higher-risk group — especially if you’re older or your immune system is weakened — health officials do recommend trying to avoid large gatherings whenever possible.
Are any local universities working on tests to distribute? Why are tests not being distributed more quickly and more effectively?
Washington University in St. Louis is working to develop a vaccine for coronavirus. There’s no word yet on a local university developing a test.
Right now, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is the only entity that can process tests, and the department is limited by the number it has on hand. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that it's fast-tracking approval for tests to be developed by private and public labs in order to help meet the demand.
Ryan Delaney, Corinne Ruff and Lindsay Toler contributed to this report.
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