Coronavirus Transmission: What You Need to Know

With cases of the new coronavirus reported in all 50 states, health officials are focused on slowing the spread of it. By understanding how coronavirus spreads, you can take the right steps so that you don’t get sick and infect others.

Person-to-Person Transmission

Experts believe the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person. There are several ways that this can happen:

  • Droplets: When an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets with the virus fly from their nose or mouth into the air. Anyone who is within 6 feet of that person can breathe those droplets into their lungs.
  • Airborne Transmission: Research shows that the virus can stay alive in the air for up to 3 hours. When you breathe air that has the virus floating in it, it gets into your lungs.
  • Fecal-Oral: Studies also suggest that virus particles can be found in infected people's poop. But it still isn’t known if the infection can spread through contact with an infected person’s poop. If that person uses the bathroom and doesn’t wash their hands, they could infect things and people that they touch.
  • Surface Transmission: Another way to catch the new coronavirus is if you touch surfaces that someone with the virus has coughed or sneezed on. You may touch a countertop or doorknob that's contaminated and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes. The virus can live on surfaces like plastic and stainless steel for 2 to 3 days. To prevent the spread, clean and disinfect all counters, knobs, and other surfaces you and your family touch several times a day.

The virus most often spreads through people who have symptoms. But it may be possible to spread the virus and not show any signs. Some people who don't know they've been infected can pass it to others.

Community Spread

Sometimes a person can trace how they got the virus because they will know they have been in contact with someone who is sick. In other cases, the cause is unknown. Community spread is when someone gets the virus without any known contact with a known sick person.

Continued

Flattening the Curve

You may have seen a graph on social media called "flattening the curve." That graph shows a tall, narrow curve and a short, wide curve. Through the graph is a line that shows how many sick people U.S. hospitals can treat. The tall curve goes above the line. That means too many people are sick at one time: We won't have enough hospital beds for all the people who will need treatment. The flatter curve shows what happens if the spread of the virus slows down. The same number of people may get sick, but the infections happen over a longer span of time, so hospitals can treat everyone.

How Social Distancing Helps

The way to flatten the curve is with social distancing. This means to keep people far enough apart that they can't spread coronavirus. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Cancel events where lots of people gather, like concerts, festivals, and conferences.
  • Work from home.
  • Keep kids out of school.
  • Don't travel by plane or train.
  • Visit with family and friends by phone and computer instead of in person.
  • Stand at least 6 feet away from people.
  • Don't hug or shake hands with anyone except your immediate family, and only if you know they are healthy.
  • Don’t go out if you feel sick.
  • Do your shopping, especially for groceries or drugstore items, online if possible. If you do have to shop in person, keep a 6-foot distance between yourself and others.

Many cities around the U.S. have limited large gatherings. They’ve closed schools, restaurants, and theaters and asked people to work from home. These measures might seem extreme. But health experts say they're the best way to slow the spread of the virus.

When to Quarantine or Isolate

To stop the spread of coronavirus, people who are sick need to self-quarantine, or stay away from those who are well. Because you may not show symptoms right away, you should also self-quarantine if you know that you’ve had exposure to someone who has it.

  • Stay at home.
  • Keep at least 6 feet away from everyone else in your household.
  • Don't have any visitors.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.
  • Don't share personal items like dishes, utensils, and towels.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces like counters, doorknobs, phones, and remote controls.

Continued

If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, isolate yourself. Stay at home in a room separate from everyone else, if at all possible. Avoid contact with all people and pets. Wear a face mask when you do have to be near other people.

If your symptoms get worse, call your doctor before you visit a clinic or hospital. Ask your doctor to call the local or state health department. Follow their instructions to get medical help.

Isolate yourself until there’s no chance that you could spread the virus. Your doctor can tell you when it's safe for you to stop isolating.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on March 19, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Cases in U.S.," "How it Spreads," "Preventing the Spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in Homes and Residential Communities."

Columbia Mailman School of Public Health: "Public Health Rallies to 'Flatten the Curve.'"

Harvard Medical School: "Coronavirus Resource Center."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Coronavirus, Social Distancing and Self Quarantine."

Kaiser Health News: "Flattening the Curve and Social Distancing: Understanding the Drastic Measures That Experts Keep Talking About."

Michigan Health: "Flattening the Curve for COVID-19: What Does It Mean and How Can You Help?"

News release, National Institutes of Health.

Wisconsin Public Radio: “Social Distancing In Wisconsin: Your Questions, Answered.”

New England Journal of Medicine: “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1.”

China CDC Weekly: “Notes from the Field: Isolation of 2019-nCoV from a Stool Specimen of a Laboratory-Confirmed Case of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Pagination