News·9 min read

What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus

Mar 2, 2020

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


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 also advised events and gatherings with over 10 people until April 30 be canceled or rescheduled. And governments and health officials are urging people to stay calm and are taking steps to contain the outbreak.


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 on whether the CCP 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. The country even 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. 


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 in lockdown in Wuhan, where the outbreak was first reported, since January. But China officially lifted the lockdown in early April and healthy people can now enter and leave 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 World Health Organization has praised China's tough response. But many people there were experiencing 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’s in mid-March. The entire country is on lockdown. 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… 

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

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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.


You may have seen the term. 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 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 and MLB is delaying its own. 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.

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.


COVID-19 is transmitted from person to person, it looks like – 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

Should I wear a face mask?

The CDC is advising everyone to wear “non-medical, cloth” masks in public in order to prevent asymptomatic people from spreading the coronavirus. This comes after the CDC said earlier this week that up to 25% of infected people may not show symptoms. And New York ordered its 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.


At first they can seem similar to a cold or the flu (think: fever, cough, difficulty breathing), but 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.


In 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.” This comes after the State Department already said Americans shouldn't travel on cruises, and President Trump’s announcement that the US will stop some travel from Europe – including the UK and Ireland – for 30 days. Trump also announced that the US-Canada border would be temporarily closed to “nonessential traffic.”

Recently, the CDC advises people living in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut to avoid domestic travel for 14 days. The CDC also says elderly Americans should avoid unnecessary travel and start stockpiling essential supplies. This especially applies to older people with underlying health conditions. The CDC also advised against all nonessential travel to Iran, China, South Korea, the UK, Ireland, and Italy. They also suggest skipping Japan if you're elderly or have a chronic medical condition. The State Department also said Americans shouldn't travel on cruises. But the situation is changing fast, and their site is a good place for the most up-to-date info.

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.


COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains and hurt profits 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. A record 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in March. 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.


President Trump has been urging calm. He's stopping some travel from Europe and announced that the US-Canada border will be temporarily closed. He put VP Mike Pence in charge of the response. Lawmakers also reached an agreement on the biggest stimulus package in US history. It includes a one-time payment of $1,200 for most Americans and an extra $500 per child for families. If you make above $75k, you won't get the full $1,200, and those making above $99k don't qualify. The gov will decide how much to give you based on your gross income from your latest tax returns (think: from 2018 or 2019 taxes). This new package also lets more people qualify for unemployment benefits. Those who lost their jobs would get whatever their state usually provides for unemployment, plus $600 per week for up to four months. And those who aren't typically eligible for benefits including gig workers (think: Uber, Lyft drivers) and freelancers will be covered.


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

Live Smarter

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.