As the coronavirus pandemic continues to shut down daily life across the globe, thousands of our readers across the nation have asked us questions about COVID-19.
And we're answering them.
But you're curious and continue to ask important questions via our newsletter, Coronavirus Watch.
So below, you can find answers to questions such as: Is it OK to be outside? How old are people who are dying in the U.S.? Is it safe to get carry-out food?
Can coronavirus be transmitted through secondhand smoke?
– David from Columbus, Georgia
"It’s not the main mode of transmission. There's probably some component of airborne, but I don’t think secondhand smoke would be a compounding factor," said Tania Elliott, clinical instructor of infectious diseases at NYU Langone.
If the smoke irritates your lungs and causes you to cough, that poses a greater risk of transmission since the virus is thought to mainly spread through respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes, Elliot said.
Smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers and possibly dirty cigarettes are in contact with lips, according to the WHO. Smokers may also already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity which would greatly increase risk of serious illness, the WHO says.
While data is still evolving about how long the virus may remain alive, a recent study found that viable virus could be detected up to three hours later in the air.
Is cross-country road travel advisable to destinations outside of COVID-19 'hot spots'?
– Roland from Albuquerque, New Mexico
The White House is asking Americans to stay home as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus, and some states and local governments have issued "stay home" and "shelter-in-place" orders.
"I don’t think now’s the time to do it," Elliott said. "If you have a house somewhere else, that's fine. But I wouldn’t recommend being in hotels or crowded public settings. If you want take a road trip and go camping, there's risk associated with that."
Has anyone with preexisting conditions gotten the coronavirus and survived?
– Dee from Arlington, Texas
Yes, many people have. While the risk for serious disease and death from COVID-19 is higher in people who are older or who have certain preexisting conditions, thousands have survived.
For example, a February WHO study of more than 70,000 coronavirus patients in China found that people with preexisting conditions had higher fatality rates than those without peexisting conditions: 13.2% for those with cardiovascular disease, 9.2% for diabetes, 8.4% for hypertension, 8.0% for chronic respiratory disease, and 7.6% for cancer. However, those figures suggest that large percentages of people with preexisting conditions survived.
Can you catch the virus from people who've died?
– Nikki from Albany, Georgia
The main way the virus is thought to spread is through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and this is not a concern after death, according to the CDC. But people should consider not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19, the CDC says.
There is no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19, the CDC says. Kissing, washing and shrouding should be avoided before, during and after the body has been prepared, if possible. But holding the hand or hugging after the body has been prepared for viewing may pose less of a risk, the CDC says.
What is the value of testing for the coronavirus if there is currently no treatment?
– Linda from Brevard County, Florida
There is value to getting tested because there are many reasons why someone would seek medical care for their symptoms, and ruling out the coronavirus is helpful in seeking other causes, said Jason Christie, chief of pulmonary medicine at Penn Medicine.
"The biggest problem is we don’t have a quick and reliable test right now. Without that, we have to be smart and ration the testing to those people that need them most. So don’t go out and get tested right now unless you’re sick," Christie said.
Testing also helps health officials figure out how prevalent and contagious a virus is.
Is it safe to get groceries during senior shopping hour?
– Pamela from Wellsville, Pennsylvania
Acknowledging that older adults and persons with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to COVID-19, a growing number of stores are dedicating time or opening earlier for senior shoppers and other at-risk groups.
But Elliott says she doesn't advise it. "That gives a false sense of security," she said. "By encouraging older people with chronic diseases to go out at a dedicated time, you're still exposing them to a bunch of other people, and if one person in that crowd is infected, then the virus will spread."
Elliott said she'd rather see stores limiting the number of people who can enter during a given time period so that there are fewer people in the store. She also encourages healthy people to do the shopping.
Can the virus be transmitted through the mail? Should I stop sending greeting cards?
– Pam from Seven Lakes, North Carolina
The chances of transmission through your mail is very low, Elliott says. "Parts of the virus can fall on surfaces and survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours. But you have to have pretty good conditions for that to happen. So the likelihood would be very small, even with no precautions," she said.
Elliott advises people to put their mail down on a plastic plate instead of directly on a counter top or table, to use a letter opener, and to wash hands thoroughly after touching the mail.
Research on how long a virus may live on surfaces is evolving. The CDC has said there is likely very low risk of transmission of COVID-19 from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks "because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces."
A recent study found that viable virus could be detected up to three hours later in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. But a subsequent report from the CDC found that genetic material from the virus can live on surfaces for more than two weeks.
Are plastic grocery bags considered the plastic that you have to wait hours to touch?
– Elizabeth from Greenfield, Indiana
You should take precaution with any containers, Elliott says. "The plastic grocery bags I’d throw out right away, wash your hands and then clean your food. Chances (of infection) are low," she said. "But better yet, bring your own bags! It’s better for the environment anyway."
They keep saying stay isolated for two weeks. But what happens after the two weeks?
– Al from Topeka, Kansas
Officials suggest self-quarantining for two weeks if you've had exposure to somebody with the virus and might be infected. It's a way to monitor if symptoms develop and, at the same time, avoid any possible spread to others. Since the incubation period for the virus is up to 14 days, you're "cleared" for the virus after two weeks, Elliott said.
After that, you still need to practice social distancing.
Is it advantageous for a younger healthy person to get the coronavirus to build immunity to it?
– Danny from Sundance, Wyoming
No, for several reasons, says Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
While a protective antibody is generated in those who are infected, scientists are not yet sure whether that immunity will last for a short period of time, for years or for life. Some say the possibility of reinfection is very likely.
Moreover, a new federal health report says Americans of all ages have faced serious health complications amid the outbreak. Data from the CDC show that among the roughly 12% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. known to need hospitalizations, about 1 in 5 were among people ages 20 to 44. Anywhere from 14% to 21% of adults ages 20 to 44 with COVID-19 have been hospitalized, the CDC data estimates. Two to 4% of cases led to ICU admissions, and less than 1% were fatal.
Finally, it's important to avoid getting and spreading the virus. While the young may not be the most at risk, they're carrying the disease to those who are more vulnerable, such as older people and those with underlying conditions. Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, on Wednesday urged "the millennial generation" to take special precautions. "You have the potential to spread it," she said.
Does getting pneumonia shots given to elderly people help if you get this virus?
– Linda from Hendersonville, Tennessee
Vaccines against pneumonia, such as pneumococcal vaccine and Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine, do not provide protection against the new coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization. The vaccines simply guard against those specific bacterial infections.
The COVID-19 virus can, in fact, cause pneumonia, but the vaccines cannot prevent this pneumonia.
I see people in my neighborhood out running, riding bikes and walking their dogs. Is that OK?
– Patti from Carmel, Indiana
Yes, that's OK! Just be sure to maintain distance from other people. The CDC recommends a distance of about 6 feet. Even in states and counties where residents are being asked to stay home or "shelter in place," it's still fine to go for a run, hike or do other outdoor activities, as long as proper social distancing is observed.
Just don't be like Chicago, where city officials closed trails and parks after crowds of hundreds of people were seen congregating along the city’s lakefront.
Remember: The White House recommends that you should avoid social gatherings involving more than 10 people, as well as all non-essential travel, shopping trips and social visits.
Are there any projections to estimate the spread of COVID-19 and a timeline of its passing?
– Dennis from Las Vegas
Yes, there are many projections, but scientists say they all hinge on how people behave. That's why it's essential to social distance and do what you can to prevent spread.
A conservative USA TODAY analysis based on data from the American Hospital Association, U.S. Census, CDC and WHO estimates that 23.8 million Americans could contract COVID-19, leaving almost six seriously ill patients for every existing hospital bed. Another analysis finds that America’s trajectory of community spread is trending toward Italy’s, where circumstances are dire.
One researcher at the Global Center for Health Security estimated last month that as many as 96 million Americans could be infected. The U.S. population on March 27 is estimated at 329 million.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security estimated that 38 million Americans will need medical care for COVID-19. The CDC's worst-case-scenario is that about 160 million to 210 million Americans will be infected by December. Under this forecast, 21 million people would need hospitalization and 200,000 to 1.7 million could die by the end of the year.
Outside the U.S., leaked British documents projected that a coronavirus outbreak could rage until spring 2021. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said 60% to 70% of her country's population could eventually become infected.
Is it safe to get carry-out food?
– Debby from Omena, Michigan
The CDC and WHO have not issued formal guidance on carry-out food.
While the CDC says that there is no evidence to support transmission associated with food, a person may get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own face. The virus can, for example, survive on cardboard up to 24 hours, according to a recent study.
The issue of carry-out food also raises concerns about the risk couriers are facing by interacting with customers during their shifts. That's why some companies are now offering "contactless" delivery options that help people maintain social distancing by allowing couriers to ring the doorbell and leave the package outside.
How soon after exposure can you test positive?
– Pam from Easton, Maryland
There's no specific data on this question yet, according to Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. However, we do know that someone infected with the virus may begin showing symptoms anywhere between one and 14 days after catching the virus, most commonly around five days, according to the WHO.
"The peak viral shedding occurs during the first five days after the onset of symptoms. My guess is that within a few days of being exposed, these patients are beginning to shed virus," Poland said.
A recent report from the CDC studying an outbreak at a care home in Washington State found that among 23 residents who tested positive for the virus, 13 were asymptomatic. Within a week, 10 of those 13 developed symptoms, with onset at 3 days.
Do the symptoms for COVID-19 come together or can you have separate symptoms showing up at different times?
– Carlos from Los Angeles
The most common symptoms are fever, tiredness and dry cough, according to the WHO. Shortness of breath is also among the most common symptoms, according to the CDC. In most cases where symptoms present, those symptoms come together, Hotez said.
"Usually it presents with fever and cough, or fever, cough, and shortness of breath," he said. "It might present with one of those symptoms first, but then it rapidly progresses to the others."
Some patients also have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. Some people do not have symptoms at all.
A New York neurosurgeon is warning people against looking out for fever as the first tell-tale symptom of the virus. His symptoms began with a little bit of congestion and only later progressed to a fever, body aches and chills.
How do you actually die from the coronavirus? What happens?
– Catherine from Carson City, Nevada
In some cases, the virus ultimately damages tiny air sacs in the lungs, restricting oxygen to the bloodstream and depriving other major organs – including the liver, kidney and brain – of oxygen.
In a small number of severe cases, that can develop into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which requires a patient be placed on a ventilator to supply oxygen. However, if too much of the lung is damaged and not enough oxygen is supplied to the rest of the body, respiratory failure could lead to organ failure and death.
What is the age range of U.S. deaths from COVID-19?
– Becky from Bentonville, Arkansas
In the U.S., ages range from a 17-year-old to people in their 90s, according to state and local health departments.
This week health officials reported that a 17-year-old teen in New Orleans died after contracting the virus. And a 2-month-old in Nashville who tested positive for the virus could be the youngest patient in the nation, officials say.
However, this range is not conclusive because health officials have not released the specific ages of several other patients, and new deaths are being reported each day.
If a person is sick with the coronavirus and gets tested for the flu, would the flu test be positive?
– Antonio from Patchogue, New York
No, the presence of the coronavirus would not turn a flu test positive. However, it's possible to have both the coronavirus and the flu at the same time. In that case, the flu test would be positive.
The opposite is also true: Presence of the flu would not result in a positive coronavirus test. It's important to note that, even if someone tests negative for the coronavirus, they still may be infected with the coronavirus.
I was told I should be tested if I could not easily inhale a large breath and hold it for at least 10 seconds. Is this good advice?
–Ted from Scottsdale, Arizona
No. While shortness of breath is among the most common symptoms of the virus, according to the CDC, that diagnosis does not necessarily involve holding a large breath for 10 seconds. Medically known as dyspnea, shortness of breath is often described as "an intense tightening in the chest, air hunger, difficulty breathing, breathlessness or a feeling of suffocation," according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you think you may be sick, call your doctor and follow CDC guidance.
Can masks be reused by an infected person or used only once?
– Debra from Dayton, Ohio
The longer a mask is used and the more damp it becomes, the less effective it is, Poland said. "But it is definitely better than the alternative of no mask!"
Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez, Dalvin Brown, Marco della Cava, Jayme Fraser and Matt Wynn
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck