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The coronavirus: What is COVID-19 and how can I protect myself?

by in Health News May 8, 2020

The coronavirus: What is COVID-19 and how can I protect myself?

In partnership with nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black

Woman washing her hands in the kitchen sink to follow hygiene precautions.

For information on how we’re supporting our members through this difficult and uncertain time, please visit our COVID-19 member support page.

If you’re looking to change your holiday plans in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), please visit nib travel insurance.

If you’re looking for information about the coronavirus relating to your nib health insurance policy, please visit COVID-19 and your cover.

Update: It’s been over four months since the first official report of the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) and since then, the disease has spread, causing the World Health Organization to label it a pandemic and Australia’s Prime Minister to declare the situation a human biosecurity emergency.

This means it’s now more important than ever to keep informed on the ways that we can all do our bit to slow the spread of the virus.

Under the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), there are a number of measures we all need to put in place to protect not only our own health, but the health of our loved ones and our community.

In short, the Government has advised that you are to stay at home unless:

  • You’re going to work or an education institution (if you are unable to work or study at home)
  • You’re shopping for essential supplies like groceries
  • You’re going out to exercise in your neighbourhood, on your own or with one other person
  • You’re attending medical appointments or compassionate visits

To see the full list of guidelines and restrictions, head to the Australian Government’s dedicated page.

To understand more about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and how to manage your risk of infection, we spoke to GP Dr Hamish Black.

What is the coronavirus?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is the name given to the most recently discovered infectious disease that’s part of the coronavirus family. Coronaviruses can affect both humans and animals and other well-known strains include SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

The name coronavirus comes from the Latin word corona, meaning crown. This is due to the virus being round and ringed with spikes when viewed under a microscope, appearing similar to the shape of a crown.

Where did it come from?

Cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) were first reported in Wuhan, China, on December 31, 2019.

According to the Centre for Disease Control, the latest coronavirus originates in bats and can be passed on to other animals. Although this disease circulates more commonly between animals, it can occasionally cross over to humans through mutations of the virus.

Although no one knows exactly where the virus originated, according to Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, “there is no question that this virus moved into humans from an animal source.”

Female doctor standing above a seated patient checking their symptoms

How is the coronavirus transmitted?

Researchers believe this disease is most likely spread from person to person through:

  • Direct close contact with a person while they’re infectious, or
  • Contact with droplets of bodily fluids when an infected person coughs or sneezes

The World Health Organization estimates those infected will transmit the virus to between two and 2.5 other people.

To help minimise outbreaks of the virus, the Australian Government has launched the COVIDsafe app. This app uses tracing technology to let you know if you’ve been in contact with someone else using the app who’s tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the past few weeks; meaning health officials can contact those potentially exposed to COVID-19 quicker than ever.

Signs and symptoms of the coronavirus

Many people infected by the virus are asymptomatic, which means they will test positive for the virus but show no symptoms. For others, symptoms can vary from mild to severe.

According to Hamish, “The course of illness is variable, and the people who tend to get sick are the elderly or immunocompromised.”

Symptoms arise within two to 14 days of exposure to the virus and can include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Dry cough
  • Aches and pains
  • Runny nose or nasal congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhoea
  • Difficulty breathing

Healthy people do not need to wear facemasks as they will not protect you from becoming infected with the virus.

Although researchers around the world are working to develop a vaccine for the latest coronavirus (COVID-19), as yet, there’s no treatment for the disease. However, there are basic precautions you can take to stop the spread:

  • Thoroughly clean hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
  • Keep at least one metre from anyone who’s coughing or sneezing
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands
  • Stay home if you feel unwell
  • Stay informed by reading the latest updates from the Australian Government
  • Follow the advice of your GP

Should you wear a facemask?

Healthy people do not need to wear facemasks as they will not protect you from becoming infected with the virus. However, if you become sick, wearing a facemask will protect others from infection.

Are there places you shouldn’t travel?

For the first time in history, the Prime Minister has declared an indefinite ‘Level 4 Travel Ban’. The advice to every Australian is to not travel abroad.

For more up-to-date information, check the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel advice on the Smartraveller website.

If you’re looking for information about changing your holiday plans in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), please visit nib travel insurance.

What should you do if you have symptoms?

“Those people most at risk of becoming infected are those in contact with someone with the virus or someone who has travelled to areas with high infection rates,” says Hamish.

The World Health Organization advises that if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, you should seek medical care.

If you are diagnosed, “treatment is supportive and also about minimising the spread,” says Hamish. “You will likely be confined to your house for 14 days, and your close contacts will be tested for the virus if they develop symptoms.”

If you’re concerned about symptoms, call the Healthdirect hotline, which is open 24 hours a day, to speak to a registered nurse: 1800 022 222

For more information you can call the National Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080.

For more information on the Australian management of the outbreak, travel restrictions and advice: https://www.health.gov.au/news/coronavirus-update-at-a-glance

For up to date advice from The World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

Information correct as of 30 March, 2020.

About Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black is the nib Group Medical Advisor. He has been a Medical Practitioner for over 25 years, trained as a General Practitioner and continues to practise as such two days a week. Hamish has also spent many years working in Emergency and Medical Assistance, including leading the nib travel clinical team. He has worked in rural and urban environments in Australia and the UK, including time with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

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