Questions about coronavirus? Here are some answers

Tips to prevent spreading germs are posted on a message board at South Station.
Tips to prevent spreading germs are posted on a message board at South Station.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

What should I do if I have symptoms that seem like coronavirus?

Call your doctor. Don’t go to a clinic, doctor’s office, or hospital without calling ahead. If you can’t reach a medical professional, or have general questions, dial 211. Starting Thursday, the Massachusetts 211 line is equipped to answer questions about Covid-19. Staff there have been provided with scripts and trained in triaging calls from the public.

If we’re canceling sports events and conferences, why aren’t we closing all schools?

School closures have serious and far-reaching effects on children, families, and society. In the case of new coronavirus, it’s not clear if the benefit is great enough to justify such measures.


The decision to close schools is “absolutely the hardest one,” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. The latest evidence suggests that children do get infected with coronavirus at the same rate as adults but have much milder symptoms, he said. And they don’t seem to drive the spread of coronavirus, as they do with flu.

Throughout the country, youngsters rely on schools for food, mental health services, and, for many, a safe place to spend the day. If schools close, children fall behind in their learning. Parents withdraw from the workforce to take care of them, with widespread economic effects.

Still, many people gather in schools and share germs.

“It’s really an agonizing choice between two bad options,” Lipsitch said.

But schools are starting to choose closure. Arlington, Bedford, Belmont, Burlington, Lexington, and Winchester were among those who announced closures Thursday; schools in those towns will close Friday through at least March 27.

Coronavirus ended their school year. Students explain the frustrating 'great Harvard evacuation'
On Tuesday, Harvard moved all classes online. They also announced a requirement for students to vacate dorms. (Produced by: Kami Rieck and Tyler Dolph/Globe Correspondents)

Can someone without symptoms spread coronavirus?

“We know it can occur,” said Dr. Richard Ellison, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at the UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. “We don’t know how commonly it takes place.”


If someone in my family returns from a trip to northern Italy, they’re now required to self-isolate for 14 days. Does that mean that the rest of the family must do so as well, even though we didn’t make the trip?

No. There’s no recommendation at this time that the contact of a contact be quarantined, Ellison said. But if your relative develops symptoms, that changes the equation, and you should contact your doctor or local health authorities.

How long does coronavirus survive on a surface?

That question, as it specifically applies to this new coronavirus, has not been studied. Other viruses have been known to survive on a surface up to a week. That means that virus particles can be detected in tests; it doesn’t mean they’re still infectious, Ellison said. And in any case, you can kill the virus quickly with a disinfectant wipe. Get the surface wet with the disinfectant. “By the time it’s dried, it should be considered safe,” Ellison said.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus, and how is it treated?
The US Centers for Disease Control says little is known about the virus, but it still has some tentative answers.

Are hand sanitizers effective?

Yes. Alcohol-based sanitizers kill coronaviruses quickly.

If you are infected with coronavirus, do you develop lifelong immunity or can you catch it again?

This virus has been infecting people for only a few months. It hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to really know. But based on evidence from other viruses that behave similarly, people are expected to develop immunity.

I have travel plans. Should I cancel them?


It’s your decision, but here’s what to consider.

—Where you’re going. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people avoid all nonessential travel to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. It also advises that older adults and those who have chronic conditions avoid traveling to Japan. Those advisories change periodically so be sure to check the CDC website.

And be warned that if you travel abroad, the situation could change while you’re there. “This is spreading quite rapidly around the world,” Ellison said. The federal government may change the risk level for the country you’re visiting and you could be subject to quarantine upon return. Italy, for example, went from a handful of cases to 10,000 in three weeks. Countries like India with less developed health systems may have outbreaks that just haven’t been tallied yet and could come to light while you’re there, Ellison cautioned.

Wednesday night, when President Trump announced a ban on travel from continental Europe starting Friday, some Americans abroad panicked about getting out in time. It soon became clear that the ban didn’t apply to Americans. But it’s an example of how quickly the situation can change in foreign travel.

— How you’re getting there.

Your car is safe, as far as disease transmission is concerned.

Airplanes, which filter the air regularly, are safer than many people believe. But if someone seated in your row, or within two rows in front or behind you, is infected and coughing a lot, you could catch a virus from them, Ellison said. You might also be exposed in a crowded airport. Same goes for buses and trains, although they haven’t been studied, Ellison said.


As for cruises, experts advise staying on land. And the State Department, in no uncertain terms, has said that US citizens “should not travel by cruise ship" because the cruise ship environment increases the risk of spread.

The rule of thumb: If you’re within 6 feet of someone who’s coughing for a period of time — more than 10 minutes, with the risk increasing as time goes on — then you can catch whatever virus they have, Ellison said.

— Your health and that of those you live with. Older adults and people with chronic health conditions should probably forgo travel for the time being. They are much more likely to become severely ill or die if they catch coronavirus. If you live with a sick or elderly person, you could bring the virus home to them.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer