As a new type of coronavirus spreads rapidly through Washington state and across the globe, the public understandably has a lot of questions about the illness and how to avoid it.

We’ve been asking you, our readers, what you want to know about the novel coronavirus, and we’re taking your questions to health professionals and other experts.

Below are answers to some of the most common questions. (Don’t see your question answered? Ask it at the bottom of this page. One caveat: If you have a specific medical question, it’s best to contact your doctor.)

What is a coronavirus? Where did this virus come from, and how does it spread?

Coronaviruses are a large, varied family of viruses that can circulate among animals and humans. Some cause the common cold, while others have evolved into more severe illnesses such as SARS. Their name comes from the Latin word for crowns or halos, which the spikes on coronaviruses’ surface resemble under a microscope.

The first cases of the novel coronavirus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2, appeared in December in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China’s Hubei province. Many of the first people infected had visited or worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for an investigation. The virus is believed to have mutated and jumped from animal to human, and it’s now spreading from person to person, although it’s unclear how easily.  

You may remember outbreaks of SARS and MERS in recent years. Those were caused by coronaviruses that emerged from animals and spread from person to person, generally between close contacts.

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Many coronaviruses can spread through coughing or sneezing, or by touching an infected person.

“COVID-19 is a new disease, and there is more to learn about how it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (‘community spread’) in some affected geographic areas. Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.”

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, orange, emerging from the surface of cells, green, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via AP) ny407 ny407
Key terms of the coronavirus outbreak, explained: From asymptomatic to zoonotic

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What are the symptoms of COVID-19? Who is at risk?

Common symptoms include fever, cough, body aches and shortness of breath. In serious cases, especially in elderly people and people with underlying medical conditions, the virus can cause pneumonia. Some patients have needed oxygen. Others have had only mild illness. Most infected people have uncomplicated illnesses and don’t require hospital care.

Most coronavirus cases are mild; that's good and bad news

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Is there a treatment or vaccine for the virus?

There are currently no specific medicines recommended for the novel coronavirus, according the CDC and the World Health Organization. For now, doctors are treating symptoms with anti-fever drugs. Some doctors are trying antiviral drugs developed for HIV or Ebola. And hospitals have begun experimenting with treatments derived from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Vaccines can take months if not years to develop. There is no vaccine yet for SARS-CoV-2. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and various pharmaceutical companies are working on one, but it probably won’t be ready for the general public for more than a year. The first clinical trials for a vaccine targeting the virus began in March at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.

Other efforts to develop a vaccine are also ongoing, locally and around the world. The competition to get a vaccine to market is good because, like with the flu vaccine, the world wouldn’t want to be dependent on one vaccine manufacturer, said Steve Reed, the CEO of HDT Bio, which is working on a vaccine with PAI Life Sciences, InBios International and the University of Washington School of Medicine.

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The Snohomish County man who was the first confirmed case in the U.S. was treated with an experimental antiviral drug called remdesivir. He began feeling better the day after his treatment. That drug has been tested in Ebola patients and proved to be safe but not effective against that virus. Researchers have reported some success using it to treat monkeys who have MERS-CoV, which is another coronavirus. China is conducting a clinical trial of the antiviral.

Clinical trials for novel coronavirus vaccine will take place at Seattle research institute

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How can I avoid catching the virus? Should I wear a mask?

Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Avoid contact with people, regardless of whether they’re showing symptoms. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

Wearing a mask, or some kind of face covering, is recommended when you’re going anywhere you might encounter other people — especially places like grocery stores or pharmacies.

A face mask isn’t guaranteed to keep you from getting sick, but the protection is better than nothing. A mask can help capture some droplets that carry the virus. Masks also can stop people from touching their own mouths and noses, another way to stop germs.

It’s important to note that wearing a mask isn’t just about protecting yourself; it can also help keep you from passing viruses to others.

Even if you’re wearing a mask, make sure to follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines recommended by public health officials; for instance, stay at least 6 feet from other people, wash your hands often and don’t touch your face.

Make sure you know how to use your mask and keep it clean. Wash your hands thoroughly before touching it.

Medical-grade masks — particularly N-95 masks, which are the most effective but are in short supply — should be reserved for medical professionals who deal directly with sick patients.

Beware of misinformation about preventing the virus. Rumors about any benefit from consuming chlorine dioxide or colloidal silver are false. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns against ingesting bleaching agents. And the silver solution has no known benefits in the body when it is ingested, according to officials with the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a federal scientific research agency. There’s also zero evidence that warm weather, hot baths, rinsing your nose or gargling do anything to fight the virus.

An 'infodemic': Debunking virus-related misinformation

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Can COVID-19 be spread through food prepared at a restaurant?

Generally, respiratory viruses like COVID-19 are not spread via the ingestion of food products that have been coughed or sneezed on by someone who is infected, said Dr. Kristen Gibson, associate professor of molecular food safety and microbiology at the University of Arkansas’ Center for Food Safety.

“That being said, if a food worker coughs or sneezes on the table or container the person is eating on or eating out of then the virus can land on the surface and then be transmitted via surface contamination, hand to mouth/nose. These viruses can survive for hours or even a day on a surface depending on the surface type and ambient conditions,” she said.

Can a package carry the virus into my home?

In the age of Amazon and stay-home orders, a lot of packages are being dropped on doorsteps. The risk of the coronavirus hitching a ride on those products and into your lungs is low, according to the CDC, although it may give you peace of mind to wipe down packages with a sanitizing wipe just in case. Researchers have found that droplets carrying the virus can last up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 72 hours on plastic and steel. The risk of getting infected from touching these materials, however, remains low because the virus’ ability to infect decreases rapidly over time.

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What effect is the pandemic having on the U.S. and global economy?

The pandemic has had a significant economic impact on Washington state, the U.S. and the world. Unemployment is setting records, businesses are taking a hit and stocks have been volatile at best. Watch our business and economy pages for the latest news and information.

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What are schools doing?

Gov Jay Inslee has closed all schools in the state.

Schools are still required to provide instruction, however, so students are adjusting to remote work.

For the latest news and information about online learning, visit our Education Lab page.

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Any travel restrictions Washingtonians should be aware of? Are planes sanitary?

All Washington residents have been advised to stay home as much as possible, so don’t travel unless it’s absolutely necessary.

United States residents should check the CDC’s latest travel advisories and warnings at cdc.gov/travel. You can also lookup specific destinations there.

Airlines are turning to the world’s hardest-hitting disinfectants to rid planes of the coronavirus. The standard vacuum-and-wipe cleanups on board have turned into hospital-grade sterilizations with products capable of stopping sexually transmitted diseases and the MRSA superbug.

Workers in protective suits spray inside an aircraft during a disinfection process in Thailand on Jan. 28. Photographer:… (Photographer: Patipat Janthong/Barcroft Media via Getty Images VIA Bloomberg) — use on Bloomberg story only —
Airlines send in world’s strongest disinfectants to fight the novel coronavirus

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What happened to the Snohomish County patient who was the United States’ first known COVID-19 case?

The patient, a 35-year-old man, is considered fully recovered. He was discharged from Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett sometime between Jan. 31 and Feb. 3 after being in an isolation unit since Jan. 20. After his discharge, he was quarantined at home for about three weeks and monitored by the Snohomish Health District.

The man had been traveling solo in Wuhan since November. He flew into Sea-Tac on Jan. 15 and began noticing symptoms a few days later, at which point he contacted his doctor and was hospitalized. When he tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he became the United States’ first confirmed case.

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More on the coronavirus outbreak

Do you have questions about the novel coronavirus?

Ask your question in the form below and we'll dig for answers. If you're using a mobile device and can't see the form on this page, ask your question here. You can see questions we've already answered on this FAQ. If you have specific medical questions, please contact your doctor.

How is this outbreak affecting you?

What has changed about your daily life? What kinds of discussions are you having with family members and friends? Are you a health care worker who's on the front lines of the response? Are you a COVID-19 patient or do you know one? Whoever you are, we want to hear from you so our news coverage is as complete, accurate and useful as possible. If you're using a mobile device and can't see the form on this page, click here.

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times is included in this report.