Coronavirus pandemic: Answers to practical questions about the spread of COVID-19

What you need to know about the new coronavirus seems to expand each day. In an effort to keep readers informed on some of the key topics surrounding the spread of COVID-19, AccuWeather has been maintaining a live daily briefing with the latest news and updates on the pandemic. We've also assembled a handy COVID-19 pandemic glossary, with definitions of all the new words and phrases that have entered the dialogue over the last couple of months. And we have a COVID-19 tracking tool that allows users to see how the illness is spreading around the world.

And for more practical needs involving questions on hand-washing technique, how to safely clean your iPhone, whether chlorine in pool water neutralizes the coronavirus and much more, below is a list of topics and questions related to everything coronavirus and COVID-19.

With cases nearing 1 million in the United States, knowing what symptoms to recognize is critical to slowing the spread and preserving your health. According to the CDC, the symptoms to look out for include the following nine, six of which were officially recognized in late April:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

These symptoms may take up to 14 days to appear after exposure, so it is important to stay inside and avoid social interactions in case of contact with the virus, even if symptoms aren't present right away. The CDC also advises keeping an eye out for what experts there are calling emergency warning signs, which include:

• Trouble breathing
• Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
• New confusion or inability to arouse
• Bluish lips or face
• Pneumonia

Is loss of smell a symptom of COVID-19?

Experts from the CDC added it to its official list of symptoms in late April, after many reports about the phenomenon had emerged throughout the medical community. Research from King's College London released on March 30 showed that the loss of smell and taste may be the primary symptom of COVID-19, Reuters reported. Nearly 60% of patients who tested positive for COVID-19 reported losing their senses of smell and taste, the researchers said.

Earlier in March, frontline health care workers raised awareness about coronavirus patients who reported having lost their senses of smell and taste, and the WHO said its health officials were looking into the phenomenon as a possible symptom, the medical website STAT reported. The American Academy of Otolaryngology took it a step further, given the prevalence of reports emerging, and made it part of the checklist used for COVID-19 screening. The loss of smell or taste in some cases has reportedly been the only sign of infection in some patients.

Good hand-washing technique is critical during the pandemic

A good hand-washing technique is one of the best ways to protect yourself and others from getting sick. With the rapid spread of the coronavirus, knowing how to properly wash your hands is especially important. In a short video tutorial shared on Twitter that went viral recently, this process was broken down by using black ink instead of soap, to show how to fully wash your hands without missing any spots. Some of the tips given in this video include:

  • Wet your hands with water
  • Put soap in the palm of your hands and rub it on your hands
  • Make sure you get your wrists, in-between your fingers, the back of your hands and your fingernails

Should you wear a face mask?

The CDC reversed its stance on Friday, April 3 and recommended that Americans should wear a face mask, a major change of course from previous guidance that only sick people or those caring for the sick should wear a mask. Many experts and doctors had been calling for people to begin wearing masks while in public in the days leading up to the CDC's reversal.

"CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others," the CDC said on Friday. "Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure."

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (purple), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. (National Institutes of Health)

The CDC still advises against using surgical masks or N-95 respirators, which are critical supplies to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.

The messaging on face coverings is still mixed though as guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) is that only sick people or those caring for the sick need to wear a face mask.

Medical officials from the CDC and WHO emphasize that it is critical to continue social distancing, which some experts believe could continue until 2022 in the U.S., and proper hand-washing even when wearing a mask.

How to make a face mask

The CDC has issued instructions on how to make sew and no-sew face masks at home using T-shirts, coffee filters and bandanas. The CDC also provided comprehensive steps on how to most effectively wear homemade face masks and  how to safely remove and sterilize a cloth mask, all of which can be found here.

The WHO also provided guidance on how to properly wear, remove and dispose of face masks.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams posted a 45-second video demonstrating how to make a homemade face mask. Watch it below.

Contact lenses

Avoid wearing contact lenses, experts sayAccording to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), guarding your eyes, as well as your hands and mouth, can help reduce the spread of the new coronavirus. The AAO lists several precautionary techniques, including for those who wear contacts to switch to glasses for a while. Contact lens wearers touch their eyes more frequently, according to the AAO. "Consider wearing glasses more often, especially if you tend to touch your eyes a lot when your contacts are in. Substituting glasses for lenses can decrease irritation and force you to pause before touching your eye," said ophthalmologist Sonal Tuli, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Glasses fogging up because of masks

People who wear glasses in parts of the country where face masks have been mandated may have encountered an issue when heading out in public with a face covering on: their lenses fog upWhether shopping at the grocery store or working at an essential business, this can be a nuisance for glasses wearers, but it's one that doctors have long dealt with. According to AARP, the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England published an article in 2011 that provides a simple method to keep glasses from fogging up.

"Immediately before wearing a face mask, wash the spectacles with soapy water and shake off the excess," the researchers wrote. "Then, let the spectacles air dry or gently dry off the lenses with a soft tissue before putting them back on. Now the spectacle lenses should not mist up when the face mask is worn."

Cleaning your iPhone

Will using a disinfectant on your Apple products to protect against the spread of coronavirus harm them? Apple says it's OK to gently wipe the hard, nonporous surfaces using 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes; however, do not use bleach or let moisture in any opening.

Can robots help prevent the spread?

The Westin Medical Center Hotel in Houston recently began deploying LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robots packed with ultraviolet lights to sanitize rooms after guests check out. The technology used by the robot has been previously used in the medical field and has been proven to kill bacteria in other strands of the coronavirus family, such as SARS and MERS.

Melinda Hart, a spokesperson for Xenex Disinfection Services, the robot manufacturer, told AccuWeather that the company has seen significantly more interest in their products since the COVID-19 outbreak, "We are shipping robots overseas daily, and U.S. demand has surged this week."

Sunshine

Could increased sunshine help mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19? A recent AccuWeather analysis examined the daily UV Index from seven major cities worldwide from Jan. 1, 2019, through mid-March 2020 compared to the 10-year average of the daily UV Index for those cities. A substantial increase in UV rays has begun and will continue for the next several months.

"If the coronavirus behaves like most other viruses, then as the sun grows stronger day by day as we head towards the summer solstice, the stronger sun and increased hours of sunshine may start to take their toll on the virus, thereby helping to slow its spread, particularly as the sun gets stronger in April and May," said AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers.

Shelter-in-place

Shelter-in-place orders such as the one in Sonoma County have consisted of:

  • People required to stay home except to buy essential needs, essential governmental functions or to operate essential businesses.
  • Necessary government functions and essential stores, including grocery stores, pharmacies and banks, remain open.
  • Homeless are exempt but strongly encouraged to seek shelter, with governmental and other entities urged to make shelter available to those who need it.
  • All public and private gatherings taking place outside of a household or living unit are prohibited.
  • All non-essential travel is prohibited, with limited public transportation for essential needs.

What about underlying health conditions?

The CDC highlighted the three underlying health conditions that put people at the greatest risk of severe COVID-19 illness. In early April, health officials at the federal agency provided the first look at preliminary data findings of the initial 122,653 COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. The key takeaway is that three underlying health conditions appear to make people more susceptible to suffering extreme symptoms from COVID-19. The CDC also cautioned that the data set is preliminary, but said the analysis aligns with what is being seen in other countries. The three conditions the CDC says put people most at risk are:

• Diabetes mellitus

• Chronic lung disease including asthma and COPD

• Cardiovascular disease

What can people do to bolster their immune system to protect against effects of COVID-19? 

Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) and Regents Professor, McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health, appeared on Joe Rogan's podcast in March as the outbreak was escalating in the U.S. and offered several tips that everyone can follow as the new coronavirus spreads. To keep a strong immune system, Osterholm recommended the following:

• Maintain a healthy weight, stay in good physical shape

• Don't miss dosages of medications for underlying medical conditions, like high blood pressure

• Get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet

• Drastically lower alcohol intake

What happens if someone in your family comes down with COVID-19? How should you care for that person?

The World Health Organization (WHO) provided some tips on how to care for people with COVID-19 at home. For caregivers, it is important to make sure that those who are ill drink plenty of fluid and to keep eating nutritious foods. It is also important to wear a mask when in the same room as the ill person and to discard the mask after use.

The WHO also recommends using dedicated dishes to be used by the ill person and to wash all dishes, towels, and bed linens the individual uses with soap and water. Other tips include frequently washing hands before and after any contact with someone battling COVID-19, daily disinfecting of surfaces touched by them, and to call a health care facility immediately if the ill person starts to worsen or experience difficulty breathing.

How long can the virus that causes COVID-19 survive on surfaces, in air?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is shown to stay contagious in the air for hours and on some surfaces for as long as 72-hours. The virus was also detected on surfaces of a cruise ship up to 17 days after vacating, according to findings by the CDC. The studies conducted in the report are helping understand how the hidden transmission of the virus is spread. Findings show SARS-CoV-2 can be spread by talking, coughing, sneezing, or even just breathing. Researchers say one of the biggest differences between SARS-CoV-2 and previous coronaviruses is how the virus can be spread unknowingly to those vulnerable via healthy people showing no symptoms. The report helps reaffirm the importance of social distancing and washing hands.

Scientists discovered how long the novel coronavirus can live in the air and on surfaces:

  • In the air, the virus could be detected up to three hours after initial dispersion.
  • On copper surfaces, the virus can survive for up to four hours.
  • On cardboard, the virus can survive up to 24 hours.
  • On plastic and stainless steel, the virus can survive up to two or three days.

Will warm weather help or slow the spread?

"In cold environments, there is longer virus survival than warm ones." Those are the words of Hong Kong University pathology professor John Nicholls, who has been studying a lab-grown copy of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. Nicholls told AccuWeather exclusively that his team's latest research shows the virus is "highly sensitive to high temperature."

Not all experts in the infectious disease community believe warm weather will slow the spread of COVID-19, however. Some prominent doctors have voiced skepticism. And Nicholls cautioned that there's more at play than the weather. "Once the virus leaves the body, human factors are more unpredictable," he said. There are multiple studies show warmer temperatures and higher humidity appear to slow the spread of the disease.

Subsequent laboratory research has shown that the virus can withstand extremely high temperatures. Multiple studies have shown the virus remained active at temperatures above 130 degrees in a lab. One of those studies was summarized as part of a "rapid expert consultation" on how temperature and humidity affect the spread of the virus that was sent to the White House. In an interview with AccuWeather, Dr. Harvey Fineberg, the scientist that oversaw the report, cautioned that observations made in labs can often have very different real-world outcomes.

And other studies have shown that certain weather may have been better for the spread of the virus at the time the outbreak escalated. One group of researchers pointed out that "significant community spread in cities and regions only along a narrow east-west distribution roughly along the 30-50 North latitude corridor at consistently similar weather patterns (5-11 degrees C [41 to 51 F] and 47-79 percent humidity," was where some of the most intense initial outbreaks occurred.

Swimming and social distancing

Can you go for a swim during the COVID-19 outbreak? SARS-CoV-2 is inactivated by the levels of chlorine used in swimming pools, making it safe to go swimming during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Public Health England and The Pool Water Treatment and Advisory Group. In May, the CDC released a statement saying, "There is no evidence that COVID-19 or Coronavirus can be spread through the use of pools and spas," but advised that, "proper operation, maintenance and disinfecting with chlorine and bromine should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19." Officials say the main concern with public pools isn't the water but the people who may spread it outside the water.

Social distancing should still be practiced among swimmers using a pool, according to officials. To sanitize pools and ensure that they are safe for the public, monthly bacteriological tests of pool water are recommended along with disinfecting objects and surfaces around the pool that may be touched often.

Do designated shopping hours for seniors and pregnant women help or hurt?

Many stores around the U.S. are designating time for vulnerable shoppers to get the items they need. Walmart announced that starting March 24, an hour-long period would be set aside each Tuesday for customers 60 and older. Others, such as Target, are also reserving weekly time slots for shoppers such as pregnant women and those with comprised immune systems.

Whole Foods Market, Dollar General, Big Lots, Safeway, and Stop & Shop are some popular stores that have set aside times for vulnerable shoppers. In a statement, Whole Foods Market said the goal is to help those customers shop in a safer, less-crowded environment.

However, some experts such as University of Pennsylvania infectious disease doctor Alysa Rain now fear that a large number of senior citizens gathering at the same time could potentially enhance the risk. "It was a good idea in general, but it's a little bit dangerous if it's not controlled," the doctor told The Washington Post.

Is it safe for COVID-19 patients to take ibuprofen? 

Officials at the WHO said that based on current information, it is monitoring the situation but "does not recommend against the use of ibuprofen." In a brief Twitter thread, the WHO added, "We are consulting with physicians treating the patients and are not aware of reports of any negative effects, beyond the usual ones that limit its use in certain populations."

Still, claims are floating around social media suggesting that ibuprofen, the active ingredient in over-the-counter drugs like Advil, aggravates the symptoms of COVID-19. According to NBC News, other medical experts concur with the WHO's guidance. "There are no hard data at all saying that ibuprofen puts you at any kind of a disadvantage or interferes with the inflammatory response of the body such that it can't fight off the virus," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told NBC News.

On April 10, the CDC weighed in on the issue after saying it had received many questions on the topic.  "At this time, there's no compelling evidence that ibuprofen and other drugs like it can make you sicker if you have COVID-19," Dr. John Brooks, the CDC's chief medical officer for the COVID-19 emergency response, said. He added that the CDC would continue monitoring ibuprofen and COVID-19.

Possible treatments being tested

A team of scientists more than 100 strong has identified 50 drugs that could be effective in treating COVID-19, according to The New York Times. Although most scientists are seeking drugs that attack the virus itself, SARS-CoV-2, the Quantitative Biosciences Institute Coronavirus Research Group, based at the University of California, San Francisco, is exploring a different approach. The researchers at this institute are looking for drugs that work to shield proteins in human cells that coronavirus needs to reproduce.

Remote doctors

Medicare patients can now visit any doctor by phone or video conference at no additional cost, the White House said. President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and several other members of the government's coronavirus task force in mid-March announced the decision to expand telehealth health services to medicare patients to include FaceTime and Skype, a decision President Trump called a "historic breakthrough."

"We encourage everyone to maximize use of telehealth to limit exposure to the virus. It's been a very successful method of communication but never used on a scale like we're going to use it," Trump said, adding that it could help keep hospitals from going over capacity.

Vaccine trials

Clinical trials for an investigational COVID-19 vaccine began on March 16, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The Phase 1 trial began in Seattle at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI). Jennifer Haller, 43, was the first to receive a vaccine, according to The Associated Press, which is called mRNA-1273.

The clinical study will evaluate dosages for safety and immune responses of 45 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 55 over an approximately six-week periodThe adults involved in the study will receive $100 for each clinic visit.

"Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] is an urgent public health priority," said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. "This Phase 1 study, launched in record speed, is an important first step toward achieving that goal."

If research goes well, a vaccine would not be ready for public use for another 12 to 18 months, Fauci told The Associated Press.