How to Prepare for Coronavirus: Masks, Washing Hands, Masks and More


The coronavirus continues to spread in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, with more than 70 cases and one death confirmed in the United States.

While the Food and Drug Administration announced this weekend that testing in the United States would be greatly expanded, health experts have been warning that the virus’s spread in the country is inevitable. That means it’s time to prepare your home and family in case your community is affected.

Most important: Do not panic. While the outbreak is a serious public health concern, the majority of those who contract the coronavirus do not become seriously ill, and only a small percentage require intensive care.

By following some basic steps, you can help reduce your risk and do your part to protect others.

It’s worth repeating, over and over again: wash your hands. Wet your hands with clean running water and then lather them with soap; don’t miss the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails. Make sure to scrub for at least 20 seconds (or about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), and dry them with a clean towel or let them air dry.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which should be rubbed in for about 20 seconds, can also work, but the gel must contain at least 60 percent alcohol.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands (tough one, we know).

  • Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all nonessential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world was not ready for a major outbreak.

Meanwhile, if someone else is showing flu- or cold-like symptoms, try to stay six feet away. If that’s not possible, even a little distancing is helpful, according to experts, as the virus seems to spread through droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze.

Sneezing or coughing yourself? Direct it into your elbow so as to avoid leaving germs on your hands, which can then quickly spread to other surfaces. Other ways to be smart include using the “Ebola handshake,” where you greet others with elbow bumps, and pushing elevator buttons with a knuckle instead of a fingertip.

Face masks have become almost synonymous with the coronavirus outbreak overseas, but they don’t do much to protect you — most surgical masks are too loose to prevent inhalation of the virus.

The C.D.C. and infectious disease specialists do not recommend face masks if you’re healthy.

But if you’re a health care worker or are caring for sick people at home or in a health care facility, you should wear one.

If you’re infected, masks can help prevent the spread of a virus. The most effective are the so-called N95 masks, which block 95 percent of very small particles.

On Saturday, the surgeon general urged the public to stop buying masks, warning that it won’t help against the spread of the coronavirus but will take away important resources from health care professionals.

Experts suggest stocking at least a 30-day supply of any needed prescriptions, and you should consider doing the same for household items like food staples, laundry detergent, and diapers, if you have small children.

Remember, alcohol is a good disinfectant for coronaviruses so make sure to keep surfaces in your home clean. Throw out those tissues in a wastebasket after you blow your nose.

The C.D.C. also recommends cleaning “high touch” surfaces, like phones and tablets.

Beyond physical items, prepare your home for a potential outbreak in the United States by staying up-to-date with reliable news resources, such as the website of your local health department.

Make sure every member of the family is up-to-date on any and all emergency plans.

Be sure to be in communication with your child’s school on what types of plans are established for any sort of schedule change, including early dismissals or online instruction. And if you have elderly parents or relatives, or family members with any special health concerns, make sure you have a plan for caring for them if they get sick.

There’s also some reassurance that could be had by creating a family emergency checklist, which could answer basic questions about evacuations, resources and supplies — especially if you have any preconditions or illnesses. The C.D.C. provides a checklist here.

Protect your child by taking the same precautions you would during cold and flu season: encourage frequent hand washing, move away from people who are coughing or sneezing and get the flu shot.

Experts recommend getting the flu vaccine, noting that vaccinating children is the best protection for older people against bacterial pneumonia.

Right now, there’s no reason for parents to worry, the experts say, and the good news is that coronavirus cases in children have been very rare.

When talking to your children about an outbreak, make sure you first assess their knowledge of the virus and that you process your own anxiety. It’s important that you don’t dismiss their fears and speak to them at an age-appropriate level.

So keep calm, and if there’s an outbreak in your community, practice what’s known as “social distancing,” which means more TV bingeing at home and fewer trips to the park.

Experts say that people currently should feel “very comfortable” traveling to destinations in the United States like California and Florida, “but that could quickly change.”

For travel outside the country, check travel warnings from the C.D.C., which is recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. The C.D.C. is also asking older adults or those with compromised immune systems to consider postponing nonessential travel to Japan. The Times also publishes an interactive map to show where the authorities are warning against travel.

“Cancel for any reason” travel insurance could protect you, but it will cost you. Be sure to know read all the fine print to understand the terms.

Expect that your travel might be disrupted, or that popular sites or attractions may be closed or offer restricted hours.

Still, if you are sick, don’t travel. Pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems should also think twice about nonessential travel.

Despite financial markets falling all week, Times financial columnist Ron Lieber says there’s little reason to be alarmed long-term. After all, “stocks are how your savings fight inflation, the market is not an absolute proxy for your personal finances, and you’re playing a long game.”



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