WBEZ is answering your questions about the coronavirus in Illinois. Have a question? Ask us here.
Since the coronavirus outbreak in Illinois, WBEZ has received hundreds of questions on everything from symptoms to eating safely to getting tested if you're uninsured. We’ll continue to update this story with answers to your questions about how COVID-19 is impacting daily life. So, check back often.
Keep in mind that what’s known about the coronavirus and COVID-19 is still evolving. Additionally, this information doesn’t constitute professional medical advice. For questions regarding your own health, always consult a physician.
Here are answers to some of your most frequently asked questions.
Is it OK to reuse masks? If so, what’s the best way to keep them safe and sanitized for reuse?
Yes, non-medical-grade cloth masks can be reused as long as they’re washed regularly. There are a few different ways to properly wash cloth masks before reuse, said Dr. Mia Taormina with the DuPage Medical Group.
Wash and dry it with your laundry. "Any detergent that we’re using will break down the virus similar to washing our hands," Taormina said. This is also the CDC's recommended tactic.
Boil the mask for 10 minutes to sanitize it.
However, Taormina warns that washing or boiling a cloth mask will eventually “degrade the integrity of the mask.” She suggests replacing cloth masks after 8 to 10 wash or boil cycles.
Symptoms and COVID-10 fast facts
What’s the difference between coronavirus and COVID-19?
COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus causing the pandemic.
Coronaviruses are nothing new — it is a generic term. They have existed for a long time and are the culprit for most common colds. Health experts are referring to this new coronavirus as a “novel coronavirus” because it was previously unknown to science. COVID-19 is the specific illness caused by this new virus.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19 and how do they progress?
There are several symptoms, but the most tell-tale signs of COVID-19 are a high fever with a dry “unproductive” cough. Other symptoms include shortness of breath and persistent fatigue.
Here’s what’s not a sign of COVID-19: Symptoms of the typical common cold, like watery eyes, runny nose and congestion.
University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman said COVID-19 symptoms don’t progress in stages, but instead lead to different severities of illness. And there are lots of variables, like age, underlying health problems and the availability of hospital resources.
In general, at least half the people who get sick will be asymptomatic, Gluckman said. Those showing any symptoms are likely to be mild, such as a sore throat. And a relatively small percentage of people will become seriously ill with breathing problems. The World Health Organization estimated one in seven cases will need to be hospitalized, and 5% of those patients will need ventilators to survive.
How long are people contagious after they’ve been infected?
Scientists remain unsure. To be safe, public health officials recommend that people who suspect they have COVID-19 stay home unless they need medical care.
If you have not been tested, the CDC said you can leave your home after:
- You’ve had no fever for three days (without help from medication)
- Your symptoms have improved
- At least a week has passed since your first symptom
If you have tested positive, the CDC said you should get two negative test results (at least 24 hours apart) before you leave your home.
You can find more from the CDC on when to stop isolating here.
How long does it take to recover from COVID-19?
Typically one to two weeks from when symptoms show up, but people who are hospitalized with more serious complications may take longer.
Starting the count when symptoms first arrive is important. When a person comes in contact with the coronavirus, it takes an average of five days to become ill, University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman said. That’s when the two week countdown should begin.
Can the coronavirus be transmitted by a person not showing symptoms?
Yes, and scientists say asymptomatic people are driving the spread of the virus.
Will I become immune to coronavirus if I get it?
A likely yes, but scientists are not 100% percent certain, said University of Pennsylvania Professor of Medicine Stephen Gluckman.
“There are many, many, many coronaviruses, and in fact it’s one of the more common causes of the common cold,” he said. “We do know from other coronaviruses that protection is lasting.”
Scientists are working on developing a test that would indicate if a person already had the virus, but for now Gluckman said the priority is distributing tests to find out who is currently sick, and therefore contagious.
Is there a test to detect whether I’ve had COVID-19?
Yes. The FDA approved the first COVID-19 antibody test for use in the U.S. on April 2, but they are not widely available.
Scientists believe these antibodies -- proteins the body develops in response to viruses and infections — show up two weeks after infection and may protect the body against the virus for at least a year, according to Dr. Mia Taormina with the DuPage Medical Group. But how much protection COVID-19 antibodies could offer still needs to be researched, according to the New York Times.
Antibody tests could also help public health officials know how protected the population will be going forward, in the absence of a vaccine. More reliable antibody testing will help researchers “truly see the impact of how many people had this virus,” Taormina said.
But the tests that are currently available were only approved through an emergency use authorization from FDA. And FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn told Meet The Press he was concerned the antibody tests may be inaccurate.
How does canceling events and staying home help slow the spread of the virus?
Through social distancing. Scientists say COVID-19 is mainly spread through both close contact and the respiratory droplets expelled by infected people when they cough or sneeze. Those droplets can travel about six feet through the air and live on surfaces for 24 to 72 hours, according to STAT.
That’s why social distancing, the practice of avoiding public spaces and maintaining physical distance, is our best way of stopping the spread of the virus, Georgetown Microbiologist Julie Fischer said.
The goal of social distancing is to spread out the total number of cases over a longer period of time to prevent an overload on the healthcare system. STAT reports on why flattening the curve is so important.
How does COVID-19 kill?
Several ways. In severe cases, COVID-19 infects the alveoli, a very thin layer of cells inside of the lungs. This infection can cause pneumonia, Georgetown University microbiologist Julie Fischer said.
To save the lungs, the body sends white blood cells to destroy the infected alveoli cells. However, that immune system response can lead to an inflammation of lung tissue, which prevents the lungs from absorbing oxygen. And without oxygen, organs shut down. Patients in desperate need of oxygen can be put on a respirator to help them breathe until the inflammation goes down, but Fischer said there is only a 50% chance at survival at that point.
In other cases, people die from the infection weakening their heart — even if their lungs improve, said Stephen Gluckman, a University of Pennsylvania medical professor.
How is COVID-19 different from other diseases?
A lack of immunity. Unlike influenza or measles, there is no vaccine for this coronavirus. And unlike some other infections — like common colds — no human on the planet had a preexisting immunity to this new virus, said Julie Fischer, a Georgetown University microbiologist. That’s what makes COVID-19 so dangerous.
Because of that lack of immunity, infections can spread through the population much more rapidly.
While the U.S. has millions of influenza cases every year, they are spread out over a flu season. The risk with COVID-19 is that the healthcare system will be severely strained if even a small percentage of the population becomes severely ill in a short period of time, Fischer said.
What is the mortality rate of COVID-19?
It’s complicated. Calculating an accurate worldwide mortality rate is difficult because there are so many variables.
At this time, many countries are only testing the very sick, a higher percentage of whom die. Because asymptomatic people and those with mild symptoms aren’t being tested, the estimated mortality rate could currently be inflated.
In regards to specific countries, doctors say the mortality rate will be affected by things like social distancing measures, the medical resources available (staff, beds and respirators) and the average age of the population in a country (the mortality rate is much higher for patients over 80).
Where can I learn the number of cases in my area?
You can search by zip code here.
Can anyone get tested for COVID-19?
No, you must be referred for testing by a physician. Commercial and hospital labs do not need health department approval to conduct a test.
As of April 8, the state’s three labs are testing:
Anyone hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms
People with COVID-19 symptoms who live or work in group settings, such as nursing homes and homeless shelters
First responders and healthcare workers with COVID-19 symptoms
Can I get tested if I don’t have a healthcare provider to give a referral?
Yes, but call ahead to an urgent care center or emergency room to tell them you’re coming, said Beth Squires, Public Health Program Coordinator at Northern Illinois University.
Don’t go unannounced, otherwise an entire waiting room could get infected, she said. Doctors and nurses need time to prepare for patients who may be contagious with COVID-19.
States and hospitals are gearing up for drive-thru testing, but I don’t have a car.
Beth Squires, Public Health Program Coordinator at Northern Illinois University, said to contact your county health department for options. She advised against using Uber or Lyft, especially if you are showing symptoms.
For now, drive-thru testing is only available in Illinois for first responders, healthcare workers and people over the age of 65 who have symptoms. Gov. JB Pritzker said testing will continue to expand in the coming weeks.
Can I get tested if I am uninsured?
Yes. The federal Families First act guarantees that uninsured people will not have to pay for testing and anyone who is experiencing symptoms should seek testing knowing they will not be responsible, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The state is awaiting specific federal guidance on reimbursing providers.
Private insurance carriers like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and Cigna have also said they will cover the costs. But it’s still best to check with your insurance company to make sure.
And the Chicago Tribune reports that Aetna would waive copays for coronavirus-related hospital stays.
Will there be a special enrollment period for insurance?
No. President Trump decided not to broadly reopen the healthcare.gov marketplace to new customers, reports The New York Times.
However, you may qualify for new insurance coverage if you can prove “life qualifying event,” such as losing your job. A special enrollment period would have made that process faster, and insurance coverage available to more people.
Why are we waiting for people to show symptoms before they are tested?
Tests are not sensitive enough to detect low levels of the virus in a human body, according to Irfan Hafiz at Northwestern Medicine. And a team of German researchers discovered that people are shedding high levels of the virus early on in their sickness, when showing only mild symptoms.
How do I know if my favorite activity is safe?
Don’t participate in activities that require touching anyone, using shared equipment or sharing an indoor space with others. Safety comes down to physical contact, doctors said.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot banned contact sports like football, basketball and soccer. And doctors say the risk is equally high for card games, board games and video games with shared controllers.
If you normally do group activities with friends, try to do them remotely instead. Using services like Zoom, Discord or Google Hangouts are just a couple ways to hang virtually.
Is it safe to take a walk?
Yes — and it’s a good idea as long as you don’t have symptoms of COVID-19, said University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman.
Walking past someone on the street carries almost no risk as long as people stay six feet apart. Gluckman suggests walks or runs to reduce stress during this time
But staying apart is crucial. On March 26, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the city’s lakefront, Riverwalk and The 606 trail because of overcrowding. She also banned contact sports like football, basketball and soccer.
Are small gatherings safe?
No. Slowing the spread of the virus requires keeping your distance, said University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman.
Don’t invite people over, he said. Meet your friends outside and stay six feet apart.
Can I go to the laundromat?
Yes, but use a disinfectant wipe to clean surfaces like machine handles, coin validators and the table for folding clothes, said Northern Illinois University public health expert Beth Squires.
Don’t worry about the inside of the machines, she said. The heat and soapy water should prevent transmission.
Can I make baked goods for my friends?
Yes, but keep your distance when delivering them, said Northern Illinois University’s Public Health Program Coordinator Beth Squires. Contracting COVID-19 is not a risk unless you’re in direct contact with someone who has it.
When baking for friends, Squires suggested washing your hands often. Then, call ahead and drop the treats by the front door. To be extra safe, your friend should throw away the packaging and wash their hands before eating.
Lowell Seyburn, who wrote to WBEZ with a similar question, suggests asking your friends if they are willing to accept your baked goods before you drop them off — some may be nervous.
My friend and I have been sheltering in place separately, can we see each other yet?
No, even if you have stayed home for two weeks, visiting friends is still dangerous because every essential trip to the store carries the risk of exposure, thus resetting that counter, said Northern Illinois University’s Public Health Program Coordinator Beth Squires.
“If you do want to get together, drive your cars to a parking lot and maintain physical distance,” she said. “Or, if you go to their house, sit at least six feet away in the front or on the porch. You and your friend are staying in place. Don’t start increasing the risk and start meeting up.”
Can I “stay at home” with my family? What about my grandparents?
Yes, as long as you live in the same home.
Northwestern Chief of Geriatrics Lee Lindquist suggested calling your grandparents instead of visiting if they live in a different home. The risk of infection is too great for casual visits.
Because the elderly can be more vulnerable, she said grandparents should still consider self isolating even after public officials relax some social distancing guidelines.
Can I transmit COVID-19 by kissing or having sex?
Yes. Coronavirus is absorbed through mucosal membranes. That’s your eyes, nose, throat and more. The New York City Health Department issued this guide to safe sex during the pandemic.
If you live with your partner, it’s safe to be intimate, said University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman. But if you live apart, it’s safer to keep your distance.
WBEZ has this guide to intimacy during the pandemic.
Can I move during the stay at home order?
Yes, moving and relocation services are considered a critical trade during the pandemic, according to Gov. JB Pritzker’s order.
Can my employer stop me from wearing a mask?
No. If you are being prevented from protecting yourself or asked to work in an unsafe environment, the Illinois Department of Public Health says to file a complaint with the federal or state Occupational and Health Safety Administration (OSHA).
Is my workplace required to close if an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19?
Maybe. When a business finds out that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, it should consult with local health officials to determine next steps. Because each case may be different, the Illinois Department of Health said there is no generalized guidance for businesses in this situation.
Can I obtain power of attorney for an older relative without doing anything in person?
Yes, but there are some logistical challenges, according to lawyer Mike Drabant.
Gov.JB Pritizker’s has issued an order that allows for “virtual witnessing,” where the witnesses and notary can watch the signing via webcam, but all parties must co-sign within 24 hours.
And e-signatures are not allowed by the state for legal documents, therefore documents must be signed by hand then emailed or faxed. This requirement can present difficulties because these documents sometimes can be more than 100 pages long, and many older people don’t have access to computers or know how to compress large files.
“Many of our documents require two witnesses and a notary,” Drabant wrote in an email. “We basically have a 24-hour window to compile the signatures from all four people. If one person is late in getting the documents sent, we have to re-do the signing.”
Should I do my errands all in one day or on multiple days?
One day.Beth Squires, a public health expert at Northern Illinois University, recommends that you limit your number of outings per week to reduce exposure.
Can I leave home to donate blood?
Yes. Giving blood is a vital service and COVID-19 shutdowns have threatened the blood supply. The American Red Cross, the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and the FDA have all issued statements encouraging blood donation.
Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Can I still get take out? Delivery?
Yes, but try to shop less often and at off-peak hours. Our Curious City team put together a guide for eating safely during the coronavirus pandemic with tips on grocery shopping, takeout and delivery. You can also read the CDC’s guide to COVID-19 and food safety.
Coronavirus and the flu
Am I protected from coronavirus if I got my flu shot?
No, the coronavirus is different from the flu. But reducing the number of flu cases could improve the overall response to COVID-19, reports LiveScience.
Can I get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?
Maybe, but coinfection is rare, according to Northwestern Medicine infectious disease expert Irfan Hafiz. Beyond anecdotal evidence, no studies have been done.
I just recovered from the flu. Am I more or less susceptible to COVID-19?
Neither, the flu has no positive or negative effect on contracting COVID-19, said University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman.
Is COVID-19 worse than the flu, in terms of infections and mortality?
Yes, with the data currently available. But it is hard to compare the two because there are antiviral remedies, vaccines and some natural immunity to the flu.
With expanded COVID-19 testing, public health workers will be able to identify asymptomatic people who are not getting sick or dying. The average mortality rate will likely decrease as a result.
A new study in the journal Nature shows the mortality rate in Wuhan is closer to 1.4%, rather than the initial 2% to 3% initially projected. But that’s still more than ten times higher than the 0.1% death rate of the flu.
This report from the New York Times is a helpful in-depth comparison.
Protecting yourself and others
Should I be stocking up on food and medicine?
No, both will remain available, according to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s director of pharmacy Desi Kotis. Hoarding keeps others from getting what they need.
Can coronavirus be transmitted over surfaces?
Yes. The coronavirus can remain on surfaces for 24 to 72 hours. As a general rule, it sticks to hard surfaces (like metal) for far longer than soft, porous surfaces (like clothing or carpet).
Can I get coronavirus from letters, newspapers or packages?
Unlikely. The CDC says it is possible to contract the virus by touching a surface and then touching your face or mouth. But washing or disinfecting a package is overkill, according to a Wirecutter report.
To be extra careful, you can dispose of external packing outside the home and wash your hands after, Wirecutter says. People in high-risk groups should consider this.
Will wearing a mask stop me from getting COVID-19?
No, but it can prevent spreading the virus if you are infected. President Trump, the CDC and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker now recommend that all people cover their faces with non-medical masks when outside. Some health experts say it could reduce transmission from people who are not showing symptoms. The new recommendations are not mandatory, and Trump said he will not wear one.
However, the World Health Organization still only recommends masks for people who are sick or are caring for someone who is sick.
Northern Illinois University’s Public Health Program Coordinator Beth Squires cautioned that face masks can also make people feel too safe.
“You still need to take the standard precautions, you still need to wash your hands,” she said.
Can pets transmit COVID-19?
Yes, and it's best to take precautions, said Dr. Mia Taormina with the DuPage Medical Group.
There have been documented COVID-19 infections in animals, including a tiger at the Bronx Zoo. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says "the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low," yet it advises being cautious when caring for your pet.
"This is why social distancing is going to be important when we’re walking our dogs as well," Taormina said.
But Taormina said it's unlikely a pet could get the virus from sniffing around objects outside.
"That would mean that that non-person object had to have the virus, then the dog would have to get exposed to the virus, then it would transmit to the person who lives with the dog," she said. "It would be extraordinarily challenging for that to happen."
If someone in your household is infected with COVID-19, Taormina advised treating pets “like family members” and making sure they stay out of the room the sick person is using to isolate.
Can common household items kill the virus on skin and surfaces?
Yes. The CDC said washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds is still the best method to curb transmission.
For surfaces, Stephen Gluckman, Professor of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania, recommends bleach. The American Chemistry Council also has a list of common household cleaners effective against COVID-19.
You can also make homemade hand sanitizer. The CDC recommends this simple r recipe: Stir 2/3 cup rubbing alcohol and 1/3 cup aloe vera gel in a small bowl until blended. Add 8 to 10 drops of an essential oil for a nice fragrance if you wish.
Once the virus is inside your body, you can’t use bleach, alcohol, Lysol or intense heat to kill the virus at that point, according to Sarah Connolly, associate professor of health sciences at DePaul University.
Other alternatives that are spreading online don’t work — and could hurt you:
- Bleach + vinegar = chlorine gas, which can cause coughing, watery eyes and breathing problems
- Bleach + ammonia = toxic chloramine gas that causes shortness of breath and chest pain
- Bleach + rubbing alcohol = highly toxic chloroform, which can knock you out
- Hydrogen peroxide + vinegar = makes the very corrosive peracetic/ peroxyacetic acid
Why do we use antibacterial products to kill a virus?
All soaps — including those with antibacterial chemicals — pull apart the outer layer of the virus.
Julie Fischer, a microbiologist at Georgetown University, said two outer layers of fat give the virus its stability, allowing the virus to move from one cell to another and begin the infection cycle.
Soaps disperse those fats — a process you’ve probably seen in the kitchen, she noted.
“If you drop dish soap into a pan with a fat floating on the top, you immediately see the sheen of that fat disappear and crumple up” she said. “The fats are still there, but they aren’t holding a structure. The same thing is happening to the virus on a microscopic level.”
Once the outer layer is weakened, scrubbing your hands then shears the virus apart. Soaps also disrupt the fats on our hands, which is why frequent washing dries them out.
Should I get a pneumonia shot?
Maybe, but it’s a little complicated. Pneumonia is a generic term for lung infection, and there are many kinds. While pneumonia is a severe complication of COVID-19, the “pneumonia vaccine” protects against a specific bacterial infection — pneumococcus.
The pneumonia vaccine does not protect against COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization.
However, University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman is suggesting the vaccine to his patients for a different reason.
“As an infectious disease doctor, it’s hard to argue against vaccines — they’re wonderful,” he said. “People have been talking about reducing all complications. Getting the vaccine makes sense in that, if you happen to get COVID, it may prevent a superimposed problem of pneumococcal pneumonia.”
If someone in your household is diagnosed with the coronavirus, does everyone need to stay home?
Yes, and public health officials may ask you to self-quarantine. More on that here.
Does heat or cold kill the coronavirus?
Probably not. Based on what we know about other viruses, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Medicine Stephen Gluckman said he would be surprised if it had any effect.
Temperatures need to reach at least 140 degrees to kill a virus. The reason viruses spread more during colder months isn’t because of the temperature, but because people spend more time indoors “sneezing and coughing on each other,” Gluckman said.
“That’s almost surely the mechanism of why viral infections peak in the winter,” he said. “They have the flu on the equator. It’s just not seasonal.”
Is there anything I can do to ease symptoms?
Yes, acetaminophen, like Tylenol, and cough medicines are best for treating symptoms at home, said University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman.
A widely circulated comment from France’s Health Minister claimed ibuprofen, like Advil, exacerbated COVID-19 symptoms. The Federal Drug Administration states it’s unclear if the drug has adverse effects. The World Health Organization said there is no evidence that Ibuprofen has a negative impact on COVID patients.
When in doubt, always consult a physician to make decisions about your own health.
There are also medications, like hydroxychloroquine, being tested in clinical trials, but Dr. Mia Taormina, a doctor with the DuPage Medical group, said it’s “too soon to tell reliably how much benefit we are seeing from that medication.”
Is Illinois prepared?
Does the U.S., and Illinois, have enough hospital beds for a COVID-19 pandemic?
Maybe. There are less than 100,000 staffed beds in the U.S., according to the American Hospital Association. Using a conservative estimate, where 20% of the U.S. population is infected over 18 months, hospital beds would be about 95% full.
And if the infection rate is higher? ProPublica created these maps to show hospital bed shortages at various infection rates.
In Illinois, the number of available beds changes daily. On March 26, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned the city could see “40,000 hospitalizations in the coming weeks,” which will “break the back” of the area’s health care system. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also set up a medical facility at McCormick Place.
Is the CTA cleaning more thoroughly?
Yes. The CTA has a “rigorous cleaning schedule” where vehicles and stations are cleaned daily — including surfaces like seats, handrails, turnstyles and ventra machines, spokesperson Brian Steele said in an email.
The CTA, which Steele said is in daily contact with the Illinois Department of Public Health, created a website to outline its cleaning efforts.
Are Chicago-area hospitals looking for facemask donations?
Yes. Illinois is accepting donations of masks and other equipment, but it needs to be unopened and can’t be homemade. More info on that here.
Other private organizations are asking for equipment here. You can contact them directly about donations.
Has the state tax filing deadline been extended?
Yes. Illinois residents have until July 15 to file federal and state taxes.
When will schools reopen?
Unclear. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year. Find more answers to your questions about schools and COVID-19 here.
Where do retired healthcare workers sign up to help the state fight COVID-19?
Here, on the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation website.
How is the state handling unemployment claims?
A record number of Illinoisans have filed for unemployment benefits during this pandemic. That demand for benefits is overburdening the system, and Gov. JB Pritzker told reporters that the program doesn’t have the money to keep up.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security is handling the influx of claims by assigning days to apply online by last name. Claims will also be back-dated to the day the person lost their job due to COVID-19.
Check this website for updates. The site has crashed before and, for now, you can’t file online between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Has wildlife been affected?
Yes, but animals are quick to adjust, said Forest Preserves of Cook County Biologist Chris Anchor.
And Cook County’s most common species are highly adaptable, Anchor said. With people largely indoors, these animals are taking advantage of the space. For example, Mallard ducks are nesting in planters outside the entrance to Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. And normally nocturnal coyotes are travelling more frequently in the daytime, but they haven’t yet expanded their territory.
When people return to normal life, Anchor said the animals will be forced out of those spaces again. But he anticipates some exciting close encounters.
“I could envision people witnessing mother coyotes or mother foxes running down the sidewalk with their pups to an alternate den,” he said.
Protecting yourself if you’re at higher risk for severe illness
Who is “high risk” and what does that mean?
High risk people are the most likely to get very sick from COVID-19.
According to the CDC and the doctors, “high risk” people include:
- Older people (especially 65+): Age is the most significant factor. Doctors say stay home.
- People with asthma: COVID-19 can cause asthma attacks and exacerbate respiratory problems.
- Immunocompromised people: This is a large category that encompasses people with autoimmune diseases or anyone on immunosuppressant medications. Consult your physician about your specific illness.
- People with AIDS: People who are not taking antiretroviral medications to treat HIV have weaker immune systems. Those undergoing treatment are no more at risk than the average person, says University of Pennsylvania medical professor Stephen Gluckman, who treats patients with HIV.
- People with respiratory and cardiovascular conditions: In serious cases, COVID-19 threatens heart and lung function. Underlying issues puts this group at risk.
Note that people who are not in any of these categories can still become seriously ill from COVID-19. No person is completely safe, just more or less susceptible.
If I am in a “high risk” category, should I be behaving differently than those who are not considered “high risk”?
Yes, according to the CDC.
Anyone who is more susceptible to the virus should take social distancing measures seriously. Avoid leaving the house if possible and have friends and neighbors run errands for you. The CDC has detailed guidance for those who are high risk.
How does the virus affect pregnant women and pregnancy?
That’s unclear. Scientists say we need more data.
The CDC does not yet know whether pregnant women have a greater chance of getting sick from COVID-19. However, pregnant women have been more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, like influenza and other coronaviruses. For example, SARS was 25% more deadly for pregnant women.
Florida Epidemiologist Sonia Rassmussen told The Guardian that scientists don’t yet know if that’s the case with COVID-19.
“It does suggest that even though the small amount of data we have so far on pregnant women is reassuring, it always reminds me that we can’t be too sure of this early on,” she said.
Malikah Shah, director of Northwestern’s newborn nursery, said there is some evidence the virus can be passed from mother to infant before birth, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
And mothers who come into contact with coronavirus should not breastfeed their children for at least two weeks, according to The Lancet scientific journal.
NPR also has this guide for pregnant women during the pandemic.
Are people who smoke at higher risk?
Yes. The National Institutes of Health said people who vape or smoke tobacco and marijuana are at higher risk for serious illness because their lungs are compromised. Users of other drugs are also at a higher risk.
There’s some evidence that men in China were more likely to have COVID-19 than women because more than half of them smoke, compared to just 2% of women in China, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Beth Squires, a public health expert at Northern Illinois University, said if the lungs are already busy fighting off the chemicals from smoking, they are more vulnerable to infection.
Should I be traveling right now?
No. Boarding a plane is dangerous for older adults because it’s impossible to know who they will come in contact with — not just on the plane, but in the airports, the tram and the parking lot, Northwestern Chief of Geriatrics Lee Lindquist said. The CDC offers detailed guidance on travel here.
Should I attend funerals?
No. It’s not an ideal time to gather with others — even at funerals, weddings or baptisms, said Northwestern Medicine Chief of Geriatrics Lee Lindquist.
“I’m sure your loved ones will understand,” Lindquist said. “Even though it hurts your heart.”
Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ. Reset producer Stephanie Kim contributed to this report.