COVID-19 Overview

Self Care Decisions / COVID-19 Overview

COVID-19 Basics


  • The most common symptoms are cough and fever. Some patients progress through shortness of breath.
  • Other common symptoms are chills, shivering (shaking), runny nose, sore throat, muscle pains or body aches, headache and loss of smell or taste.
  • The CDC also includes the following less-common symptoms: fatigue (tiredness), nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Incubation Period: average 5 days (range 2 to 14 days) after coming in contact with the secretions of a person who has COVID-19.
  • No Symptoms but Infected: more than 30% of infected patients have no symptoms.
  • Mild Infections: 80% of those with symptoms have a mild illness, much like normal flu or a bad cold. The symptoms usually last 2 weeks.
  • Severe Infections: 20% of those with symptoms develop trouble breathing from viral pneumonia. Many of these need to be admitted to the hospital. People with complications generally recover in 3 to 6 weeks. Severe infections are rare in people who are vaccinated.
  • Deaths: children generally have a mild illness and recover quickly. Pediatric deaths are very rare. Older adults, especially those with chronic lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or weak immune systems, have the highest death rates. The overall death rate is around 2 per 1,000 in the U.S..
  • Vaccine: safe and highly effective vaccines are available. Some vaccines are 2 doses, given 3-4 weeks apart. Others are a single dose. Similar to flu shots, they will probably provide protection for 6-9 months. At this time, vaccines have been tested and are FDA approved for 12 years and older. Trials on children younger than 12 years have started (May 2021). Breakthrough cases are COVID-19 infections that bypass vaccine protection. They are rare and many do not cause any symptoms. The vaccine prevents almost all hospital admissions and deaths.
  • Treatment: new treatments for severe COVID-19 are becoming available. They are mainly used on hospitalized patients and are given by IV (in the vein). 

How Is COVID-19 Spread?

  • COVID-19 is spread from person to person.
  • The virus spreads by respiratory droplets that are produced when a person coughs, sneezes, shouts or sings. The infected droplets can then be inhaled by a nearby person or land on the surface of their face or eyes. 
  • Most infected people also have respiratory secretions on their hands. These secretions get transferred to healthy people on doorknobs, faucet handles, etc. The virus then gets transferred to healthy people when they touch their face or rub their eyes.
  • These methods are how most respiratory viruses spread.

Exposure to COVID-19: Levels of Risk

  • Household Close Contact. Lives with a person who has positive test for COVID-19. This carries the highest risk of spreading the infection.
  • Other Close Contact. The CDC defines 6 feet (2 meters) as how far coughing can spread the virus. How long the close contact lasts can also be important. Prolonged close contact is defined as a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period (CDC). Close contact includes kissing, hugging or sharing eating and drinking utensils. It also includes close conversations. Direct contact with secretions of a person with COVID-19 is also close contact. Includes being in the same childcare room, classroom or carpool. These exposures are usually lower risk than living with an infected person.
  • In Same Building – Low Risk Exposure. Being in the same school, place of worship, workplace or building carries a small risk for exposure. This risk increases if several people have the infection.
  • In Same City – Low Risk Exposure. Living in or travel from a city or country where there is major community spread of COVID-19, also carries a small risk. The CDC lists these “hot spots.” Outdoor contacts are much safer than indoor contacts.

COVID-19 Testing – Talk with your Doctor:

  • Testing is offered at many sites. Where to get it can be different for every city. Many doctor’s offices, retail clinics, and urgent care centers offer testing. Community drive-through sites or pharmacies may also be testing site options. At home self- tests can also be bought in some drugstores.
  • Your doctor is the best resource for up-to-date information on testing. Call during office hours.
  • Here are some facts that may answer some of your questions:
  • Diagnostic tests: these are performed on nasal or mouth secretions. The tests can tell us if you have a COVID-19 infection now. Timing is important on when to do this test:
    • With Symptoms. Get a test within 1 to 3 days of onset of symptoms.
    • Without Symptoms and no COVID vaccine with a COVID-19 close contact. Get a test on day 5-7 after exposure.
    • Without Symptoms and fully COVID-19 vaccinated with a COVID-19 close contact. Get a test on day 3-5 after exposure.
  • Repeat diagnostic tests: after a positive test, repeat tests are not recommended. Even after it is safe to stop isolation (usually 10 days), tests may stay positive for up to 90 days. A positive test does not mean the patient can spread the infection once the required isolation period is completed.
  • Antibody Tests: these are performed on blood. They can sometimes tell us if you have antibodies from a previous infection. They are not done until at least 2 to 3 weeks have passed from the start of the infection. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about this test.

COVID-19 Vaccine – Get Your COVID-19 Shot:

  • Vaccines have saved more lives than any other public health action. They are the most powerful weapon we have against deadly infectious diseases. Follow the science.
  • Safe and effective vaccines are now available for people age 12 and older. 
  • If you have the chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine, get one. It could save your life and protect your family.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Family from Catching COVID-19

  • Get the COVID-19 vaccine. It is your best protection against this serious infection.
  • Always wear a mask when you leave your home. Also, observe social (safe) distancing.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water (very important). Always do before you eat.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if water is not available. Remember: soap and water work better.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless your hands are clean. Germs on the hands can get into your body this way.
  • Don’t share glasses, plates or eating utensils.
  • No longer shake hands. Greet others with a smile and a nod.
  • If you or your child need to be seen for an urgent medical problem, do not hesitate to go in. ERs and urgent care sites are safe places. They are well equipped to protect you against the virus. For non-urgent conditions, talk to your doctor’s office first.

Social Distancing and COVID-19 Prevention

  • Avoid any contact with people known to have COVID-19 infection. Avoid talking to or sitting close to them.
  • Social Distancing: try to stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from anyone who is sick, especially if they are coughing. Also called physical distancing. Avoid crowds, because you can’t tell who might be sick.
  • If COVID-19 is widespread in your community, try to stay 6 feet (2 meters) away from everyone outside your family unit.
  • Stay at Home Orders: follow any stay at home (stay in place) orders in your community. Leave your home only for essential needs such as buying food or seeking medical care.
  • After Stay at Home Orders are Lifted: continue social distancing. Also wear a mask when entering any public building or outdoor crowded area. These precautions will be needed for many months. Your state public health department will decide when they are no longer needed.

Trusted Sources for Accurate COVID-19 Information?

To meet the high demand for COVID-19 information, when possible, find your answers online. Here are the most reliable websites:

Always follow the most current CDC recommendations if they are different than those in this document. 

Author: Barton Schmitt, MD, FAAP
Copyright: Copyright 2021. Updated 9/10/2021.
Disclaimer: this health information is for educational purposes only. You, the reader, assume full responsibility for how you choose to use it.