covid-19 masks
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Mar 29, 2020

Editor's note: This guide was updated on April 30, 2020.

More than 3 million people around the world have been infected with COVID-19. We Skimm’d everything you need to know about the virus, from where it started to how to keep yourself safe.

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The Story

The spread of COVID-19 has people worried. It's now infected more than 3.2 million people and killed more than 228,000 worldwide. The World Health Organization has officially called it a “pandemic” – a global spread of a new disease. The White House's social distancing guidelines will expire on April 30. Governments and health officials are urging people to stay calm and are taking steps to contain the outbreak.

The Origins

In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping first spoke publicly on the pneumonia-like virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) praised China for its "transparency." But an internal speech revealed that Xi knew about the virus almost two weeks before he commented on it publicly. This raised questions about whether the Chinese Communist Party tried to cover up the severity of the virus, allowing the virus to spread through China and the world.

Why would China keep quiet?

Control. Much like the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, the Chinese gov is being accused of trying to keep this latest outbreak under wraps to avoid showing weakness. In February, the country detained an activist who criticized Xi's handling of the coronavirus. And the doctor who first alerted his colleagues of the coronavirus – but was silenced by police – died from the disease. 

The Global Spread

COVID-19 has reached six out of the world's seven continents. Here's where the most people have been affected and how the government has responded…

China…where the word is containment. Millions were under lockdown in Wuhan – where the outbreak was first reported – for 76 days. But in early April, China lifted the lockdown allowing healthy people to travel in and out of the city. The number of reported infections outside of Wuhan has reportedly dropped significantly. And at least 78,000 of those known to have been infected have recovered. The WHO has praised China's tough response. But many people there experienced anxiety and depression.

South Korea…where the country has declared "war" on the coronavirus. And has tested hundreds of thousands of people since its outbreak began, including at drive-thru clinics. The country's current fatality rate appears to be 2.3% (for context, the WHO estimates that the global fatality rate is 3.4%). South Korea's widespread testing could be the reason for the lower number.

Iran...where the move was 'downplay, downplay, downplay' until more than 20 gov officials were infected. Now, the country has shut down all schools and universities and threatened those who hoard supplies like face masks with the death penalty. Meanwhile, it's temporarily released more than 50,000 inmates who've tested negative to avoid the spread of coronavirus in prisons.

Italy...where the country’s death toll surpassed China in mid-March. The entire country is on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It prevents hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients. But the lockdown could push the country's already fragile economy into a recession. Residents who break the quarantine rules could be hit with fines or jail-time as punishment.

What about the US?

The gov is advocating for social distancing as the number of confirmed cases has topped 1 million and more than 60,000 have died, giving the US the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world. President Trump has also…

  • Declared a national emergency to help fight the outbreak. Doing this lets the Federal Emergency Management Agency (aka FEMA) distribute up to $50 billion in federal aid to states and territories to address the outbreak.

  • Called on states to set up emergency operation centers. He said there are plans to get drive-thru testing sites up and running, and some states (New York, Colorado, Washington, California, Utah, and Indiana) already have drive-thru testing sites open.

  • Gave the secretary of Health and Human Services more authority to waive certain laws and regulations to make it easier for health care workers to respond to the outbreak. 

  • Banned some travel from Europe and announced that the US-Canada border will be temporarily closed.

  • Signed a relief package that provides free testing and paid leave for some employees affected by the virus. Trump also signed a stimulus package that is sending direct one-time payments to many Americans.

  • Signed an executive order temporarily suspending immigration. The restrictions – which will last for 60 days – affect people outside of the US applying for green cards and visas, potentially impacting tens of thousands of applicants. Trump said the goal is to ensure that the record-high level of unemployed Americans will be "first in line" for jobs as states reopen.

  • Invoked the Defense Production Act to require meat processing plants to stay open during the pandemic as meat shortages started to become a threat.

When will this be over in the US?

We don’t know. Some respiratory illnesses (like the flu) tend to thrive in colder seasons. But we don’t know yet whether temperature and weather impact the spread of COVID-19. But President Trump recently laid out a plan for states to reopen. But this plan is more like a list of suggested guidelines for governors. And he said he’ll let governors make the call on when to reopen. The measures he's proposing is a phased approach that should kick in after states start seeing a decline in cases for 14 days. Here’s what that looks like

The FAQs

What are the symptoms?

At first they can seem similar to a cold or the flu (think: fever, cough, difficulty breathing). They can also include chills, muscle pain, sore throat, and new loss of smell or taste. Call your doctor if you're experiencing emergency warning signs like:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath

  • Pain or pressure in the chest

  • Confusion

  • Bluish lips or face

...or if you have been around an infected person.

Is there a vaccine?

It’s in the works. More than a dozen companies worldwide are working to develop one. And three of them have reportedly started Phase 1 of clinical trials with human volunteers. A vaccine isn't expected for at least a year, but the quick turnaround could be unprecedented – the vaccine process usually takes years.

What about treatments?

The drug remdesivir is raising some hopes. Early results from a study on more than 1,000 hospitalized patients found that it sped up recovery by an average of four days. It's unclear if the antiviral drug can prevent deaths. Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci compared its potential impact to the first drug to treat HIV. And said the drug will set a new "standard of care" for coronavirus treatment. The FDA hasn't approved it yet. But it's reportedly on track to give the drug an emergency use authorization. And is in talks with its maker – Gilead Sciences – to get it to patients ASAP.

How does it compare to other viruses?

It's killed more people than the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak and MERS combined. Already, the virus seems significantly more contagious and deadly than the flu.

Am I at risk?

Most cases seem to be mild. But the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions (like heart and lung diseases or diabetes) are especially vulnerable.

How can I protect myself?

It looks like COVID-19 is transmitted from person to person – through tiny droplets (like from sneezes or coughs). Here’s what you can do to keep yourself protected:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds

  • Use hand sanitizer between washes

  • Avoid handshakes

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth

  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hands

  • Stay home if you’re sick

  • Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick

As in social distancing?

Yup. It's one of the things the CDC is recommending we all do in the wake of the outbreak. There are different forms of it but the main theme: keep away from others. Think: working from home and avoiding crowded places. The CDC recommends that you maintain a distance of six feet from other people when you can. And the White House recently extended this social distancing guidance until April 30. It’s why many schools around the country are closed. South by Southwest canceled its conference. The NBA and NHL have suspended their seasons. The MLB is delaying its season. March Madness is canceled. Major cultural institutions like the Met, Carnegie Hall, and Broadway are temporarily closing their doors. Disneyland and Walt Disney World will no longer be the happiest places on Earth. And the 2020 Olympics were postponed until 2021.

Will all of that help?

The thinking here is that if people adhere to social distancing then there's a chance to "flatten the curve." Meaning: slow down the spread of the virus over time in the hopes of preventing a huge spike in infections all at once. A large, sudden increase in the number of infections could lead to a greater number of people needing hospital treatment – which could overwhelm hospital resources and staff. And we don't want that.

Can you get it more than once?

In some cases, exposure to viruses (think: through previous infection or a vaccine) can allow your body to develop immunity. But the WHO says there's "currently no evidence" that people who've had this virus (and developed antibodies) won't be reinfected. As some countries were considering using antibody tests to give people “immunity passports,” the agency warned that some of these tests show false positives – adding to the uncertainty surrounding testing accuracy. 

What if I’m pregnant?

We still don't know whether pregnant women are more susceptible to COVID-19. Or whether fetuses and newborns are particularly at risk. In the few cases where infected mothers gave birth, the infants tested negative for COVID-19. And the virus wasn’t found in samples of breastmilk. Pregnant women should take the same steps as everyone else: wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, stay away from people who are sick. 

Should I buy a face mask?

The CDC is advising that everyone wear “non-medical, cloth” masks in public to prevent asymptomatic people from spreading the coronavirus. This comes after the CDC said up to 25% of infected people may not show symptoms. And New York's governor ordered residents to wear masks in public whenever social distancing isn’t possible (think: on public transportation, in grocery stores). But don’t run out and buy medical face masks. There’s still a major shortage, and experts say surgical face masks and N95 respirators should be reserved for health care workers. For everyone else, masks can be homemade. Here’s how you can make one.

Should I avoid taking ibuprofen? 

It doesn’t look like it. The WHO tweeted that it “does not recommend against” the use of ibuprofen and isn’t aware of reports of any negative side effects besides its usual side effects (think: diarrhea, bloating). 

Should I avoid food with WIC labels? 

One progressive advocacy group in Maine is encouraging non-WIC shoppers to avoid buying food with WIC labels. This group says that people who use WIC can’t necessarily switch to other options if those run out.

The Impact

On mid-March, the State Department issued the highest possible travel warning, telling Americans to avoid traveling outside the US. And Americans who are already abroad should either come back or should be prepared to stay where they are for an “indefinite period.”

The CDC has advised people living in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut to avoid domestic travel through mid-April. The CDC also says elderly Americans should avoid unnecessary travel and start stockpiling essential supplies.

If you decide to travel, you might want to get travel insurance. And read the fine print. Most policies won’t reimburse you if you cancel your trip because you’re afraid of getting sick. “Cancel for any reason” policies are more expensive, but typically offer better coverage.

On the economy…COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains and hurt profit potential across industries. Which helps explain why the market has been extra volatile lately. If you invest, you've probably noticed some (not so pretty) changes to your portfolio. It's also affected the job market. In the last month, 22 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits. The gov has already started making (stimulus) moves to help. Including cutting interest rates and extending the deadline to file and pay your federal income tax bill. We Skimm'd more of what the virus could mean for your money here.

On your community…this virus is impacting millions of people all over the country. And there are ways you can help out those around you. Start with your neighbors. Check on them by calling, texting, or sending a letter. The CDC recommends things like safely dropping off food (like for a neighbor under quarantine). Also reach out to your older relatives, who are more at risk of getting seriously sick from COVID-19 and may be quarantined. Give them a call and ask if you can help them out (think: bringing them food, picking up medications). People experiencing homelessness may also need a helping hand. Reach out to your local shelter and see if they need any donations.

You can also donate to food banks. And you can donate blood. The American Red Cross is urging eligible people to donate since the country is facing a blood shortage. Help your local restaurants by buying gift cards for yourself (you may be able to do it online). Businesses will be able to keep bringing in revenue and you can save the meal for another day.

On you…COVID-19 is changing our daily lives. A big part of that includes working from home. We Skimm’d some tips on how to be productive while working from home. Especially if you have kids.


All signs indicate COVID-19 will continue to spread. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. And stay safe.

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