How the coronavirus spreads

Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has learned to date.
Illustration: Shutterstock

One of the challenges in battling coronavirus is the lack of information available to all parties, from health officials to restaurants and other businesses looking to protect employees and customers. The contagion has grown into a major global health issue so quickly that little data has been collected and shared.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has set up a microsite that pulls together what the scientific community has learned about similar types of viruses. Included is this primer on how corona likely spreads, assuming it mimics similar pathogens.

Person-to-person contact. The CDC is defining “contact” as coming within 6 feet of someone carrying the virus. Authorities have raised the possibility that air might be enough of a medium for the transference, given a case in California where someone who contracted the disease apparently had no face-to-face interaction with anyone who was infected. The virus is known to be carried on respiratory droplets from someone who sneezes or coughs.

Touching contaminated surfaces or objects.It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19”—the formal name of the disease caused by coronavirus—"by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes,” the CDC says. “But this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Still, the possibility could be of special concern to the restaurant industry because it could temper consumers’ confidence in the safety of delivery food.

Someone showing no symptoms. Among the mysteries posed by coronavirus is its level of contagiousness. Initial observations suggest the pathogen could be transmitted by someone who carries the virus but shows no symptoms. “There have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” the CDC says.

The agency warns, “The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (‘community spread’) in some affected geographic areas. Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.” The populations in those areas could be regarded as contaminated, regardless of whether they show symptoms.

More information is available from the CDC’s website, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/.

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