At this time last year, not many people outside of public health and medical circles knew much about or paid much attention to coronavirus. SARS-CoV-2 changed that and has introduced “bending the curve,” “COVID-19,” and “social distancing” into the lexicon.

The general population now knows much more about coronaviruses, which can infect birds and mammals, including humans. Two other coronaviruses captured the world’s attention earlier this century when SARS emerged in Asia in 2002 and MERS on the Arabian Peninsula in 2012.

Readers have asked how SARS-CoV-2, the current pandemic coronavirus, works once it is in the body and what they should do if exposed. We answer those questions in this week’s FAQ Friday and a question about being exposed to the virus at work.

How does SARS-CoV-2 infect people and cause the disease COVID-19?

SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA (ribonucleic acid) virus with spike proteins that connect to ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) receptors on human cells. By latching onto a cell, the virus can enter and begin to make copies of itself. The new copies break out of the cell and attack other cells, repeating the process.

This 2020 electron micrsocope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle, isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. Coronaviruses, including the newest one, are named for the spikes that cover their outer surface like a crown, or corona in Latin. Using those club-shaped spikes, the virus latches on to the outer wall of a human cell, invades it and replicates, creating viruses to hijack more cells. (NIAID/NIH via AP)

A major reason why SARS-CoV-2 has been more successful than its cousins, SARS and MERS, is because people can pass it to others before symptoms begin to show.

Because SARS-CoV-2 is new to scientists and researchers, it isn’t known how it is able to be spread by people not showing symptoms. But this feature is one of the driving forces behind the new coronavirus’ worldwide domination.


Do employers have to notify employees when a co-worker comes down with COVID-19?

Not everyone can work from home, and some businesses can’t operate with employees working remotely. Where people are around each other, there is a chance for SARS-CoV-2 to spread and for outbreaks to happen.

Employers are supposed to immediately send home workers who test positive for COVID-19 and people who were in close contact with the positive case.

Then, employers need to identify workers who were within 6 feet of the person with the positive case for at least 15 minutes and inform them of the possible exposure. The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids identifying the person with the disease.

Local health departments are supposed to be notified by employers if more than two workers are positive with COVID-19 in a 14-day period.

As of Dec. 12, there have been 1,974 outbreaks in non-health-care congregate settings, according to the Department of Health.

An outbreak is defined as two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least two of the cases have symptoms showing within two weeks of each other and evidence that transmission happened in a shared site.


Employees who test positive can’t return to work until at least 10 days have passed since symptoms began to show and at least 24 hours after a fever goes away without the use of fever-reducing medications and other symptoms have improved.

Where can people who have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 get tested?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people get tested if they are showing COVID-19 symptoms, have had close contact with someone with the disease, have been put at risk from being in a congregate setting, and people who have been told to get a test by a health-care provider.

If people have been exposed, they can call their health-care provider for a test or use one of the health department-run testing sites in Western Washington.

The city of Seattle has two large drive-thru testing sites, 12040 Aurora Ave. N. and 3820 Sixth Ave. S., in addition to a number of other sites throughout the city.

Do you have questions about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19?

Ask 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. If you have specific medical questions, please contact your doctor.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic