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Coronavirus 101: How to Prevent Viral Infections

Viruses and bacteria

When reports emerged that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had reached the United States in March 2020, communities across the country cancelled school and sporting events, and locals made a mad dash to buy all the water and toilet paper at Wal-Mart.

During this time of fear and anxiety for many, much misinformation is spread about infectious disease. Today we seek to clear up some of the confusion and highlight how you can protect yourself and others from the spread of viral infection.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a virus with symptoms similar to those of the common cold or the flu.

COVID-19 is part of a large family of viruses known as coronaviruses. The recent outbreak of COVID-19 began in November 2019 in China. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization classified it as a pandemic.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 and how serious is it?

The most common symptoms of the disease include a fever, cough, shortness of breath, and/or a loss of taste or smell. They may appear between 2-14 days after exposure to someone with coronavirus.

As of December 7, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report there have been more than 14 million cases in the United States, 280,135 of which have resulted in death. China, where the outbreak started, has had 94,293 cases, 4,753 of which have resulted in death.

For comparison, the CDC estimates that in the United States, between 36 and 51 million people were infected by the common flu last season, resulting in between 22,000-55,000 deaths.

The majority of healthy patients recover from the illness as they would the common cold or common flu. Those particularly at risk are the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions. In addition, many of the measures recently put in place by local governments, such as closing schools, have been preventative rather than reactionary.

How to control the spread of viral infections

You can help stay healthy and prevent spreading illness by taking a few simple precautions. The CDC offers many helpful suggestions:

  • Wash your hands frequently using proper handwashing technique
  • Use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol when you aren’t easily able to wash your hands
  • Avoid mingling with people who are sick if you can help it
  • Wear a mask in public — some local health departments are even recommending that you also wear a mask at private gatherings when you’re mingling with people who live outside your household
  • Those who test positive for COVID-19 should stay home so they can get the rest they need to recover and protect others from getting exposed to the virus; follow the requirements in your area to know how long to self-quarantine
  • Completely cover your mouth in your elbow when you sneeze
  • After sneezing or blowing your nose, wash your hands
  • Sanitize frequently used surfaces, such as computers, desks, and cell phones; common household disinfectants work well

Other steps to take during viral infection outbreak:

  • Avoid spreading misinformation; during times of outbreak, news media often over-hype sensitive issues, or people create memes and videos meant to be funny that exaggerate the effects of the outbreak. Make sure to get all information from trustworthy sources, such as the CDC and World Health Organization
  • Follow guidelines from federal and local health officials.
  • Be prepared, and be smart; it’s good to have a supply of food and other necessities stored in your home for emergency situations. However, unless alerted by local health officials, your tap water supply should be safe to use. In addition, be considerate of others when stocking up on supplies and only take what you need.

COVID-19 vaccines and food workers

While the supply of COVID-19 vaccines is limited, the CDC has given recommendations on who should be offered the vaccine first. Because food and agricultural workers, grocery store workers, and foodservice employees are considered essential workers, the agency has recommended they be some of the first recipients.

Keep in mind, however, that the CDC’s guidelines aren’t binding. Your local government has the final say over how to prioritize giving out the vaccine.

What are preventive measures?

During outbreaks of infections, local and/or federal health officials may choose to recommend or enforce certain guidelines meant to protect people. In the case of coronavirus, for example, many schools have been closed or are transitioning to online meetings to prevent people from getting each other sick. 

In many cases, these measures aren’t enacted because an outbreak has suddenly gotten much worse, or has become a major threat to people in that location. Most of the time, these measures are designed to prevent a potential threat from reaching a point where it is harming many people.

If your local health officials enact preventive guidelines, there’s no need to panic. Instead, embrace the safety precaution and do all you can to facilitate easy transition within your community.

Contagious disease and food safety

Food workers and those preparing food have a great responsibility during viral infection outbreaks to prevent the spread of disease through contact with the food others will be eating. Many of the guidelines presented above are especially pertinent for food handlers.

If you’re a food worker and you’re feeling sick, it is crucial that you immediately alert your supervisor (if working at a food establishment) and either leave or don’t go in to work.

You should always wear gloves and change them frequently. You should also wash your hands as frequently as needed when handling food, including after using the bathroom, when switching between tasks, and after handling your cell phone.

Key takeaways for handling COVID-19

Three key takeaways for viral illness outbreaks are:

  1. Don’t panic
  2. Be smart
  3. Be safe

By getting information from the correct source, using common sense hygiene principles, and following guidelines from health agencies, you will be doing the best you can to protect yourself and loved ones, and prevent the spread of infection.

We at StateFoodSafety wish you peace and health during the coronavirus pandemic. For more outbreak resources, visit our COVID-19 resources page.

— Calvin Clark

Editor’s note: This article was updated for accuracy on January 5, 2021.

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