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Maternity & Family Benefits

What you need to know about the coronavirus, or COVID-19

March 2, 2020

You may have been hearing a lot about the coronavirus in recent days, and you’re not alone if you’re nervous or have questions about what it means. We’re here to share with you what we know about the coronavirus right now — including how to avoid getting sick and what it means for pregnant women and mothers — and to answer your questions. 

What is the coronavirus? What is COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can range from the common cold to more serious viruses. The new coronavirus that you’ve probably been hearing about most recently causes a disease called COVID-19 (which stands for COronaVIrus Disease 2019). The virus was first detected at the end of 2019 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, and has since been detected in other countries. 

How widespread is COVID-19? 

Presently, the situation is enough of a global emergency that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it to be a pandemic. The virus is also spreading in the United States. In weeks and months to come, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expect that COVID-19 will continue to spread widely throughout the country. People living in areas where COVID-19 is spreading throughout their community are at an elevated risk of being exposed.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms of COVID-19, which may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus, include: 

  • fever 
  • cough 
  • shortness of breath

Some people might pick up the virus but not have symptoms or feel sick — though they could still pass the virus on others. Most people who get COVID-19 will have mild symptoms and get better, but some people might become sicker and have trouble breathing. Older people or people with underlying medical problems (like individuals with diabetes, heart problems, or high blood pressure or those who are immunocompromised) could be more likely to have more serious symptoms or complications. Very serious cases could lead to death.

You should get medical attention immediately if you experience: 

  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • steady pain or pressure in the chest
  • bluish lips or face
  • confusion or an inability to stir or wake

What should you do if you suspect you have COVID-19?

If you suspect that you have COVID-19, you should stay home and be in touch with your medical provider. If you’re experiencing the more serious symptoms listed above, you should seek medical attention immediately. However, you should call your medical provider before you visit a medical facility. This is so that they can tell you where to go to receive the proper care and so they can give you instructions to help prevent further spread of illness. These symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than COVID-19, but your provider can guide you on the best next steps for care. 

How does COVID-19 spread?

There’s still a lot that experts don’t know about the virus, but it seems that the disease can be spread much like other coronaviruses — through small droplets from the nose and mouth that spread when someone coughs, sneezes, or exhales. The virus can then be transmitted when another person interacts with those droplets, such as by breathing them in or touching where the droplets land and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes.

How can you prevent picking up and transmitting the virus? 

Because of how the disease seems to spread, one of the best things you can do to slow the spread is to engage in good hygiene practices. While we recognize that some of these suggestions might seem overly basic, we share them because they really are the most effective ways you can keep yourself — and others — protected. So here are a few friendly reminders: 

Regularly washing your hands the right way with soap and water is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of germs:

  • Wet your hands. You should do this with clean, running water — either warm or cold water is fine. Once your hands are wet, shut off the water.

  • Next, apply soap to your hands. Lather and scrub your hands with the soap for at least 20 seconds — singing the “ABC” or “Happy Birthday” song twice is a great way to time this. 

  • To do a thorough job, be sure to not only rub your palms together, but also scrub the back of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. 

  • Rinse all the soap off your hands under clean, running water. 

  • Dry your hands with a clean towel or let them air dry. 

You should wash your hands in this way often, especially at times when you’re more likely to pick up and spread germs — like before eating, before and after preparing food, after using the bathroom, after changing a diaper, after caring for someone who is sick, after being in a public place or when returning home, or after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. 

Hand washing is best, but an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can also be used if you don’t have easy access to soap and water.

Take part in social distancing. This means keeping your distance from people when in public places  — at least 6 feet (or about 2 meters) away — avoiding crowds, and reconsidering any non-essential travel. If you live in a community where the coronavirus is spreading, which includes many areas of the U.S., it’s further advised that you stay home as much as possible to prevent picking up COVID-19 or spreading it throughout your community. This means working from home (if possible), not gathering together with family or friends, and doing essential errands like going to the grocery store or pharmacy less frequently, only as needed, and at off-hours. This may feel like an extreme step, but it’s a strong tool to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. To further encourage social distancing, on March 15, 2020 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that everyone cancel and postpone in-person events of 50 people or more (not including schools or businesses). And across the U.S., many schools are canceled, many businesses have moved to let employees work from home or stopped operating, and many small events have been canceled to further prevent community spread. There have even been recent shelter in place orders in some communities. Because of this, you should sign up for your city or town’s local alerts to stay aware of any such restrictions in your area.  

You can also practice good habits when out in public that will prevent the spread of viruses. For example, don’t shake hands and instead use alternative methods of greeting that don’t involve touching. You may also want to try to avoid high-touch surfaces, like elevator buttons or door handles, as much as possible. You can try to use your elbow or place a tissue or shirtsleeve between your hand and the surface, or you can wash your hands after touching these surfaces. 

And because your hands may touch a number of surfaces throughout the day where viruses could be, even though it can be hard, you should also do your best to avoid touching your face and picking up illness by touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. 

You’ll also want to avoid people who are sick, and if someone is sneezing or coughing, you should stand at least 6 feet (or about 2 meters) away. 

Additionally, it’s a good idea to regularly clean and disinfect areas of your home or in your workplace that you touch throughout the day, such as doorknobs, handles, light switches, toilets, sinks, remotes, chairs, phones, baby gates, keyboards, desks, tables, etc. You can do this with household cleaners — like soap and water or detergent — or disinfecting sprays or wipes. 

You should also be sure to follow all travel warnings posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and follow any community advisories announced by your local authorities for areas where the virus is especially active — including travel restrictions, event cancellations, or other social distancing measures.  

If you’re feeling sick, be sure to cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze. You can do this by bringing your bent elbow toward your mouth and coughing or sneezing into that. You can also cough or sneeze into a tissue, which you should then throw away immediately, and then wash your hands. 

And if you feel sick, even with mild symptoms, you should stay home to prevent spreading illness.

We recognize that some of this advice can be hard to follow — we know that not everyone can take a paid sick day when they have a fever, and that if you take public transportation, you can’t stop the people around you from coughing — but the situation is serious enough that we highly encourage you to put into practice as much of this advice as you can. It’s also a great idea to encourage the people around you to engage in the same good habits. And it’s never too early to teach little ones to engage in these habits too.

A note on face masks: You may be wondering if it’s a good idea to wear a face mask to keep from getting sick. If you’re healthy, it’s not recommended that you wear a face mask to avoid getting COVID-19. (Immunocompromised individuals might receive different advice for prevention from their healthcare providers, and if you’re immunocompromised you can speak with your provider for advice.) But it is recommended that people who have COVID-19 do wear face masks to prevent the virus from spreading. (Those caring for sick individuals might also be advised by healthcare providers to wear face masks or other protective gear at certain times.) Again, if you suspect that you have COVID-19, you should speak to your healthcare provider for further instructions and care. 

What does this mean for pregnant women or mothers?

Right now, experts don’t know how susceptible pregnant women are to COVID-19. But, in general, pregnant women who develop viral respiratory infections like this one tend to be at increased risk of developing complications of or more severe symptoms. The risks of birth defects or complications may be similar to other viruses — such as those that can happen when a mother has a high fever during the first trimester — but this is considered to be extremely unlikely.

If pregnant, you’ll want to take the normal safety precautions we list above. However, special precautions may apply for pregnant women in health care professions who may be caring for sick individuals. 

Presently, there’s very little evidence available regarding mother-to-fetus transmission, transmission during delivery, and breastfeeding. However, in the very few cases seen so far, it doesn’t seem that children born to mothers with COVID-19 pass the virus to their children in the womb and the virus has not been detected in the amniotic fluid or breastmilk of mothers with COVID-19.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has published guidelines for health care professionals caring for pregnant women with COVID-19 and their babies. These guidelines include how to prevent transmission and how to approach breastfeeding. 

How does COVID-19 compare to the flu?

COVID-19 is similar to the flu in some ways, but it appears to be more deadly and expected to be much more widespread. That being said, the flu still poses a big risk across the U.S. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reiterates the importance of having all women, including pregnant women, get the flu shot. And the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older be vaccinated too. (There are only rare exceptions for certain health conditions where a flu shot is not recommended.) Getting a flu shot is one of the best steps you can take to prevent the flu.

Do you need to be worried?

The situation is changing quickly, and it’s totally normal to feel worried about COVID-19. Be sure to stay up to date on COVID-19 as we continue to learn more about the situation, and do what you can to take care of yourself and your family. It’s our hope that learning the facts of the situation and understanding the steps you can take to prevent illness and limit the spread of disease will help you feel more at ease. 

Where can you find up-to-date information on COVID-19?

There’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID-19, but U.S. and world health organizations will continue to study the virus and closely monitor the situation. For the latest up-to-date information, you can keep an eye on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website. There you can find updates, tips, and information like:

You should also follow any directions provided by your local government, local health authorities, or your healthcare provider. (If you live outside of the U.S., stay informed by listening to your country or region’s own health authorities.) Their goal is to help you stay safe and healthy and to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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