5 Ways To Prevent And Prepare For The Coronavirus : Life Kit You might be wondering how to prevent coronavirus and protect your family if the virus continues to spread. Nancy Messonnier from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares five things you can do to prepare. One takeaway: Wash your hands often with soap and water.

Coronavirus 101: What You Need To Know To Prepare

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ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:

If coronavirus is on your mind, you're not alone. In this special edition of LIFE KIT from NPR News, we've got tips on prevention and preparation. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say when it comes to seeing more of the virus in the U.S., it's not a matter of if; it's when. Here's the CDC's Nancy Messonnier.

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NANCY MESSONNIER: I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming, and that disruption to everyday life may be severe, but these are things that people need to start thinking about now. I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that while I didn't think that they were at risk right now, we as a family need to be preparing for a significant disruption of our lives.

AUBREY: So what the heck does that mean? Well, we've got some answers for you.

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AUBREY: I'm Allison Aubrey. I've been reporting on the coronavirus. The news is changing every day, but the basics on how to prevent and prepare remain the same. So I sat down with All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang to answer some questions. And then at the end of the episode, we'll recap our best practices with my Science Desk colleague, Maria Godoy.

Hey there, Ailsa.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey, Allison. All right. So we got some really great questions from listeners. And I want to start with this one from Maddie Park (ph) in Ventura, Calif.

AUBREY: OK.

MADDIE PARK: I'm just wondering how many people who get the coronavirus actually die. How dangerous is it, really? How much more likely is it to lead to death than the regular flu? You know, I'm afraid we might be whipping up some hysteria about this disease.

AUBREY: Well, I would say that the good news is that, so far, most of the illnesses have been mild. In China, 80% of the cases have been classified as mild. This means symptoms such as, you know, a dry cough, maybe a low-grade fever, something similar to a cold or perhaps the flu. Now, the death rate is estimated to be about 2%, and this is really important to point out. It means that 98% of people who get this don't die from the virus.

CHANG: Right.

AUBREY: Maddie asks how this compares to flu. Well, the answer is that flu has a mortality rate of about .1% or about one in a thousand. But here's something to keep in mind, Ailsa, that I think is really important. This 2% estimate is really provisional. It could be off. I mean, early in an outbreak, the sickest people are identified, and there may be people with more mild cases that have not been accounted for, so that could throw off the calculation. And it's possible that the death rate is even lower. I mean, here in the U.S., there are only a small number of cases. But so far, there have been no deaths. And the people who do die in China tend to be older. The average age is in the 70s. And the thought really is that people who are already in poor health due to medical conditions or habits such as smoking, that they are most vulnerable.

CHANG: Are there symptoms that people should be on the lookout for? And how are people who are sick actually treated?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, early symptoms include fever, dry cough, some people experience fatigue, headaches; less frequently, there's diarrhea. The treatment is typically what health care professionals would call supportive care, and that really just means giving medicines to keep a fever down, making sure the person stays hydrated, so plenty of fluids. Now, shortness of breath can develop, and that would be a sign you need medical attention. In a clinical setting, they can use a breathing machine to assist with breathing.

CHANG: Now, there was something that a bunch of people wrote in saying that they were confused about, and that was something that Nancy Messonnier of the CDC said yesterday.

AUBREY: Ah, yes.

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MESSONNIER: We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad.

CHANG: OK. One listener heard that and wrote to us - what does that mean exactly? It's completely unhelpful. The bottom line is what do we do in a practical sense?

AUBREY: I completely get that. I mean, I think big picture here, there is no cause for panic right now, but now is the time to prepare. As we just heard, the CDC says it's no longer a question of if; it's now when. Now, we won't see outbreaks everywhere all at once in this country. It could be a cluster in a small town or maybe in the middle of an urban area. We don't know. But think about this the way you think about preparing for a snowstorm or a hurricane. It may not come, it may not happen, but if it does, you'd be smart to prepare. You may want to have some extra food in your cupboards, have basic medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, on hand. I spoke to Rebecca Katz. She's director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.

REBECCA KATZ: In this situation, if you have widespread virus in your community, you may not want to go to a public drugstore. You may want to figure out ways where you can distance yourself from other people.

AUBREY: You also may want to think about what you do if your kids' schools are closed. What is your day care backup plan? Talk to your employers about working from home. Think through the details of that. It's really just about good planning.

CHANG: OK. Well, speaking about good planning, my parents just sent me this gigantic box of face masks.

AUBREY: Ah, they are good planners.

CHANG: (Laughter) Should I even be opening this box up and using these masks?

AUBREY: Well, it could come in handy if suddenly you found yourself in the position of needing to care for someone in your home, then masks can be really helpful. If you're caring for a sick person, they can help prevent the spread. But there's a bit of a mixed message here. Not all public health officials agree about the use of these masks, and that's because they're not foolproof. And the thought is, well, you don't want to give this false sense of security that you can't get the virus by wearing a mask; you can. You've got to be able to use them properly, and if you do use them properly, they can be helpful.

CHANG: OK. Here's another question from listener Ayesha Dixon (ph). She's a single mom of a 4-year-old.

AYESHA DIXON: I have a friend coming back from Japan. And I'm wondering, should I hang out with them this weekend? I jokingly said, let's hang out in about two weeks. But now I'm kind of worried.

CHANG: Now, Ayesha says that she's a healthy adult. But you can hear her - she's worried about her child.

AUBREY: Absolutely.

CHANG: Should she be?

AUBREY: Well, you know, it's not an unreasonable concern. And certainly, there will be a whole lot more talk about social distancing, especially if we start to see outbreaks. But Ayesha asks about kids, and what we know so far is that kids do not seem to be as vulnerable to this coronavirus. There have been a surprisingly low number of cases among children in China. A small study that tracked what happened to a group of infants who'd been diagnosed in China after being infected by a family member, it found that the babies seemed to do well at fending off the virus. I spoke to Cody Meissner. He's a pediatric infectious disease expert at Tufts.

CODY MEISSNER: It turned out that it was a very mild illness. Some had a cough. Fever was - it was very low-grade. It was really a mild upper respiratory tract infection or even no symptoms.

AUBREY: So that could be kind of reassuring to parents.

CHANG: Yeah. So if you're someone with kids, are there any extra precautions you should take to protect them?

AUBREY: Sure. Absolutely. Well, with kids, you know, again, you want to have fever-reducers in the house, maybe Pedialyte in the event of dehydration. Also, you want to think about the psychological side of this. I mean, kids are hearing about the coronavirus.

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: My own 9-year-old daughter came home asking about it.

CHANG: Wow.

AUBREY: There are memes on TikTok, right?

CHANG: (Laughter).

AUBREY: And I don't know if they're scared, but they're definitely talking about it. So what you want to do is reassure them that, yes, this is something that is coming here, but all of the experts around the globe and the doctors and the nurses and teachers are aware of it, and they're going to take the precautions that are needed to protect you.

CHANG: I mean, I think part of what's been alarming about the coronavirus is watching it infect people from lots of different places in the world.

AUBREY: Sure.

CHANG: And our next question gets at this global nature of the virus.

CARDIS KATHY: My name is Cardis Kathy (ph), and I'm from South Texas. And my question is, is there any chance that items made in China should be avoided? Like, can the virus survive the trip over from shipments?

CHANG: My guess is no.

AUBREY: Yeah. Actually, you're absolutely right. I mean, this is going to be reassuring to people. There is absolutely no evidence that the virus can be transmitted via a package shipped from China. The CDC has weighed in on this, saying that because of the poor survivability of the virus on surfaces, this is just not a concern. I mean, it can take days to ship a package. Now, I will say that coronaviruses are thought to mainly spread from person to person via respiratory droplets. And so it's certainly possible that if an infected person coughs or sneezes and then you walk through that or touch the doorknob or the elevator button where those little droplets have landed...

CHANG: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...You could become infected. And that's why we are constantly hearing now about the importance of good hygiene, especially hand-washing.

CHANG: Like flu season habits.

AUBREY: That's exactly right. In fact, the same things that you do to prevent the cold and the flu, that's what you do to prevent this virus.

CHANG: OK, let's talk about travel now.

AUBREY: Sure.

CHANG: I mean, we had a lot of questions from people who have all kinds of travel plans coming up. And here is having Javier Falcon (ph). He's from the suburbs of Phoenix.

AUBREY: OK.

JAVIER FALCON: For Christmas, my wife and I gave our daughters a trip to New York City. Should we go through with the trip, even though it will take us into New York City, which is - obviously has very crowded environments?

CHANG: Are you going to crush people's vacation dreams now, Allison?

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AUBREY: No. You know, I know it's the beginning of spring break season, right? So this has to be on a lot of people's minds. I think - you know, look - no one is going to tell you not to travel to New York right now, right? I mean, if there were to be an outbreak there, people might reconsider. But in general, when you travel, the CDC is recommending that you do some pretty obvious, basic things - I mean, avoid sick people, try not to touch your eyes, your nose or your mouth without washing your hands, and again, not to sound like a broken record...

CHANG: (Laughter) Right.

AUBREY: ...Wash your hands frequently. That's the best thing you can do. It's your best defense against this virus.

CHANG: What about airplane travel? A lot of people had questions about this, especially travel to countries with reported outbreaks, like Italy for example. What's the guidance from experts there?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the CDC is updating its travel guidelines almost daily. They use this four-level scale to rank the risk. Level one would mean, you know, business or travel as usual. Level four would mean do not travel to this place. Right now Italy is at a level two, which means practice enhanced precautions. What does that mean? Well, you want to stay away from sick people. You want to be aware of the policies that the Italian government has put in place. So for instance, public events have been canceled in the region where there are outbreaks. So this may affect your planning.

CHANG: Well, what about cruises? I mean, my parents just canceled a cruise because of all this. We had a listener write in wondering whether she should also cancel her upcoming Caribbean cruise or whether they should just go and pack face masks and medicine. What do you think?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think you really have to think about your overall personal risk. I mean, if you are young and healthy, it's a very different calculation than if you are in your 70s or 80s or older and have underlying medical problems. I mean, older, less healthy people are more vulnerable. Also, you have got to think about the possible consequences. I mean, if there were to be on - an outbreak of the virus on your ship, can you afford to be quarantined or delayed? Or do you need to get back to work or to your kids? I mean, if so, that would be a real hardship. So make that part of your planning.

CHANG: Yeah. OK. Lastly, there is a question here about when this coronavirus outbreak might end.

AUBREY: Ah, if we only knew, right?

CHANG: (Laughter).

CATHERINE NANG: This is Catherine Nang (ph) from Fulton, Mo. And my question is will this coronavirus be seasonal and ebb away in the summer like influenza does every year?

AUBREY: Well, I would say that hope springs eternal, right?

CHANG: (Laughter).

AUBREY: There is a seasonality to many viruses. Flu and cold viruses tend to peak in the winter months, then die down with warmer weather. It has to do with the - how temperature and humidity can influence transmission. And some infectious disease experts say this could happen with the new coronavirus. But the problem is this virus is so new it's really unpredictable.

CHANG: Yeah. That is NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much, Allison.

AUBREY: And Ailsa, thank you for joining us for this special episode of LIFE KIT.

CHANG: My pleasure.

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AUBREY: Now, the news is changing daily, but the basics on how to prevent and prepare remain the same. So to recap, I'm here with Maria Godoy, who just wrote an article about this topic, and we're going to walk through the takeaways together. Hey, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hi, Allison.

AUBREY: OK, so tip No. 1 - the vast majority of cases are mild, yeah?

GODOY: Exactly. So don't panic. Think cold or flu symptoms, and be prepared to ride it out at home.

AUBREY: Tip No. 2 - preparation, preparation, preparation.

GODOY: Exactly. Think of this like you would preparing for a snowstorm or a hurricane. Have some nonperishable foods on hand to carry you through for a week or so, if needed.

AUBREY: And tip No. 3 - what about masks?

GODOY: Short answer - most of us do not need them. That's what health officials say. The exception - if you are sick, it will help prevent you from spreading your infection to others, and if you're caring for a sick person, it can help reduce your chances of getting sick.

AUBREY: And tip No. 4 - if you've got kids...

GODOY: Well, right. Think about having things like Pedialyte on hand in case they get sick. The good news is kids, when they get it, seem to have a very mild case. Also, think about what you do to entertain them if they're stuck at home and what your backup day care plan is or if schools are closed, you know.

AUBREY: So 10 days of Scrabble?

(LAUGHTER)

GODOY: Yeah, exactly. Or the iPad is your friend.

AUBREY: (Laughter) And figure out what you're going to do when schools are closed, right?

GODOY: Exactly. Can you talk to your boss about telecommuting, for instance? Not everybody has that option. But it's a good idea, experts say, even if you're not sick because you want to reduce your chances of getting sick.

AUBREY: And tip No. 5 - good hygiene.

GODOY: That means, you know, wash your hands a lot, and scrub down frequently touch surfaces, like faucets and kitchen tables. Also, if you're going to cough, just do it into your elbow and wash your hands right afterwards. That's good etiquette, no matter what's going around.

AUBREY: Another thing to clean - your phone. It's like a third hand.

GODOY: Ugh. You should always be doing that.

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Right. The final tip - travel. What should we know?

GODOY: Before you head out, if you're traveling abroad, think about what would happen if you're stuck abroad for several weeks. And if your family life is going to be disrupted too much, maybe rethink your plans.

AUBREY: Excellent. Thanks so much for joining us, Maria.

GODOY: Thank you, Allison.

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AUBREY: Now, the news is moving fast on this story. You can keep up with all of it on npr.org or by listening to your local member station. For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I've hosted episodes about getting the most bang for your buck when you exercise, how to pick the right diet for you. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything.

I want to do a special shoutout to all my colleagues on the NPR Science Desk and the staff of All Things Considered. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Allison Aubrey. Thanks for listening.

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