More than 328,000 people have been infected with a new coronavirus that has spread widely from its origin in China over the past few months. Over 14,300 have already died. Our comprehensive guide for understanding and navigating this global public health threat is below. This is a rapidly developing epidemic, and we will update this guide as often as possible to keep you as prepared and informed as possible.
What is a pandemic?
A pandemic is an epidemic (infectious disease outbreak) that spreads on a global scale. Pandemics usually occur when a new infectious disease emerges that can spread rapidly around the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020. This COVID-19 pandemic is the first caused by a coronavirus. (WHO)
A pandemic can occur when a new virus emerges and there is worldwide spread of the disease. Most people do not have immunity to a new virus. Viruses that have caused past pandemics usually come from animal viruses that have mutated to affect humans.
For a new virus to have pandemic potential it must meet three criteria:
- humans have little or no pre-existing immunity against the virus
- the virus causes disease in humans
- the virus can spread efficiently from person to person.
Previous pandemics include Spanish Influenza in 1918 or H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009. Only Type A influenza viruses have been known to cause influenza pandemics. This COVID-19 pandemic is the first caused by a coronavirus.
On 11 March WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The WHO used this declaration to call for urgent and aggressive action. They noted that this is a pandemic that can be controlled. Both China and the Republic of Korea have significantly declining outbreaks.
On 30 January, the WHO declared that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In the last two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 has increased substantially and the number of affected countries has tripled (WHO).
The health impact of a pandemic on the community depends on how easily the virus can be spread between people (i.e. transmissibility) and the seriousness of the illness it causes (i.e. clinical severity). Healthcare systems can limit the impact on a community by slowing the spread of the infection between people and increasing the ability of the healthcare system to look after people who do get sick.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause illness in humans and others cause illness in animals, such as bats, camels, and civets. Human coronaviruses generally cause mild illness, such as the common cold.
Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve to infect and spread among humans, causing severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which emerged in 2012.
COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. It was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, where it has caused a large and ongoing outbreak. It has since spread more widely in China. Cases have since been identified in several other countries. The COVID-19 virus is closely related to a bat coronavirus.
There is much more to learn about how COVID-19 is spread, its severity, and other features associated with the virus; epidemiological and clinical investigations are ongoing.
Outbreaks of new coronavirus infections among people are always a public health concern. The situation is evolving rapidly.
Human coronaviruses are spread from someone infected with COVID-19 virus to other close contacts with that person through contaminated droplets spread by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands, surfaces or objects.
The time between when a person is exposed to the virus and when symptoms first appear is typically 5 to 6 days, although may range from 2 to 14 days. For this reason, people who might have been in contact with a confirmed case are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
Most COVID-19 cases appear to be spread from people who have symptoms. A small number of people may have been infectious before their symptoms developed.
What are the symptoms?
Patients may have fever, cough, runny nose, shortness of breath and other symptoms.
In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia with severe acute respiratory distress.
The first symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza (flu) infections are often very similar. They both cause fever and similar respiratory symptoms, which can then range from mild through to severe disease, and sometimes can be fatal.
Both viruses are also transmitted in the same way, by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with hands, surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus. As a result, the same public health measures, such as hand hygiene (hand washing), good respiratory etiquette (coughing into your elbow or into a tissue and immediately disposing of the tissue) and good household cleaning are important actions to prevent both infections.
The speed of transmission is an important difference between the two viruses. Influenza typically has a shorter incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) than COVID-19. This means that influenza can spread faster than COVID-19.
While the range of symptoms for the two viruses is similar, the fraction with severe disease appears to be higher for COVID-19. While most people have mild symptoms, approximately 15% of people have severe infections and 5% require intensive care in a hospital ICU. The proportions of severe and critical COVID-19 infections are higher than for influenza infections.
Should I avoid attending public events, for example, religious celebrations, music festivals or sporting matches?
The infection period for the virus will vary from person to person. Mild symptoms in an otherwise healthy individual may resolve over just a few days. Similar to influenza, for an individual with other ongoing health issues, such as a respiratory condition, recovery may take weeks and in severe cases could be potentially fatal.
Infection with COVID-19 is diagnosed by finding evidence of the virus in respiratory samples such as swabs from the back of the nose and throat or fluid from the lungs.
If you have been identified as a contact of a person with confirmed COVID-19 infection, you need to isolate yourself at home for 14 days after contact with the infected person, and to monitor your health and report any symptoms.
Person to person spread of coronaviruses generally occurs between people who are close contacts with one another. A close contact is typically someone who has been face to face for at least 15 minutes, or been in the same closed space for at least 2 hours, with a person that was infectious.
If any symptoms develop contacts must call the public health unit to report those symptoms.
If your contact with the person was less than this, there is a much smaller risk of you being infected. However, as a precaution you must still monitor your health until 14 days after you were last exposed to the infectious person.
Tell your doctor that you have been in contact with someone with COVID-19. The doctor may tell you to attend your nearest emergency department – if so when you arrive, immediately tell staff you have had contact with someone with COVID-19.
More information about home isolation is available for:
- people suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 infection
- close contacts and recently returned travellers.
Practice simple hygiene by:
- making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub
- cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow.
If you have been in contact with a person identified as a close contact of another person with confirmed COVID-19 infection, you do not need to self-isolate (although the close contact does) and don’t need take any other special precautions.
If a close contact develops symptoms and is confirmed as a COVID-19 case, public health authorities will determine who, if anyone, has been in close contact with them while they were infectious, and these people will be directed to self-isolate.
Who is most at risk?
The people most at risk of getting COVID-19 coronavirus infections are those who have:
- recently returned from overseas
- been in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Based on what we know so far about COVID-19 and what we know about other coronaviruses, those at greatest risk of serious infection are:
- people aged 65 years and over
- people with chronic medical conditions, such as lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease, neurological conditions and diabetes
- people with impaired immune systems (such as people who have cancer or HIV, or who take high dose corticosteroids).
People living in group residential settings are at greater risk of being exposed to outbreaks of COVID-19 if a case is diagnosed in a resident or staff member. This includes:
- people living in residential aged care facilities and disability group homes
- people in detention facilities
- students in boarding schools
- people on Cruise Ships.
People living in some group residential settings are also more likely to have conditions that make them at greater risk of serious COVID-19 infection.
Read the latest from Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG).
Some simple measures significantly reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 and of spreading it:
- Clean your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand rub/sanitiser.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing and sneezing or use your elbow, not your hands
- Avoid close contact with people unwell with cold or flu-like symptoms, and stay home if you have these symptoms.
- Avoid touching your face and avoid shaking hands with others.
- Try to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres from others as much as possible, and avoid crowded places.
There are no vaccines that protect against COVID-19.
There is no specific treatment for COVID-19. Early diagnosis and general supportive care are important. Most of the time, symptoms will resolve on their own. People who have serious disease with complications can be cared for in hospital.
If you are after medical advice and your general practitioner is not able to speak with you, you can call *719#
People with acute, cold, flu-like symptoms who are returned travellers, or a contact of a confirmed case, be tested for COVID-19.
Testing is recommended for all returning overseas travellers who develop symptoms within 14 days of return, contacts of cases who develop symptoms, people admitted to hospital with severe respiratory infection irrespective of travel history, other special circumstances such as where there is an outbreak of respiratory infections without an identified cause such as flu.
This testing can take up to two days to complete and report back.
COVID-19 is one kind of coronavirus, but there are other kinds of coronaviruses that have infected people for many years around the world. If you are sick with a respiratory infection (for example you have a cough, runny nose, sore throat or fever), the doctor may order a swab from the back of your nose or throat for testing. Many laboratories will test the swab for several different viruses. This test is called a multiplex viral respiratory panel, which often include tests for these other coronaviruses. These tests currently do not test for COVID-19 and do not indicate whether it is present or absent.
The Government has put in place protective measures at all international ports.
The best way to protect yourself is the same as you would against any respiratory infection. Practice good hygiene by:
- making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub
- cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow
- avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.
Make sure you stay home if you are sick.
The key to handwashing is to wash often and wash well for at least 20 seconds. That’s about the time it takes to sing two verses of “Happy Birthday”, which is a handy tip for children too.
All you need is water and a detergent (surfactant) such as:
- a bar of soap
- body wash
It doesn’t have to be an expensive brand, and it doesn’t have to be marked “antibacterial”.
If you’re using hand sanitiser, it should contain 60% alcohol or more. Keep your nails short and clean, wash your tea towels often and consider avoiding wearing rings.
Face masks are not recommended for the general population.
People who have symptoms and might be infected with COVID-19 are required to stay in isolation at home and should wear a surgical face mask when in the same room as another person and when seeking medical advice to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to anyone else.
Health care workers who are caring for patients with suspected COVID-19 should use appropriate personal protective equipment to protect themselves against COVID-19.
Hand dryers are not effective in killing or preventing COVID-19 on their own, and they may increase the risk of spread of COVID-19 if used on hands that have not been cleaned properly.
To protect yourself against COVID-19, you should clean your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand rub/sanitiser. If you have washed your hands, dry them thoroughly by using paper towels. If there are no paper towels available, use a hot air dryer or let your hands air dry. Your hands must be dried completely.
If you are using hand towels to dry your hands, such as in the bathroom at home, it’s important to wash them regularly. If someone in your home is unwell, they should use their own hand towel.
Hospitals ensure surfaces are cleaned and disinfected after each suspected case, as are ambulances. There is an Infection Prevention and Control Practice Handbook that outlines the appropriate steps for cleaning a room to ensure there are no viruses remaining. Staff also wear protective gear when cleaning to protect themselves and limit any spread of infection.
Hospitals and clinicians are well trained in caring for people with infectious diseases, and in preventing their transmission to other patients.
People with confirmed COVID-19 infection stay in isolation under the care of medical specialists until they are no longer experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Before they are released from isolation, they have tests to see if they still have COVID-19 and the specialist care team assesses they are no longer infectious. Once they are discharged they have a follow up assessment by the medical team to make sure they remain well.
Recent increases in demand have meant some community pharmacies have experienced a temporary strain on supply.
New limits have been set on dispensing and purchase of some prescription and over-the-counter medicines, so that everyone can access what they need, when they need it.
Pharmacists will be required to limit dispensing of certain prescription products to one month’s supply at the prescribed dose, and sales of certain over-the-counter medicines will be limited to a maximum of one unit per purchase.
Social distancing means we reduce the number of close physical and social contacts we have with one another.
When social distancing actions are combined with good personal hygiene measures the spread of a pandemic through the community can be slowed. This helps protect the most vulnerable members of the community and reduces the impact of the pandemic on essential, life-saving health services.
Social distancing is an effective measure, but it is recognised that it cannot be practised in all situations and the aim is to generally reduce potential for transmission.
While practicing social distancing, people can travel to work (including public transport). For non-essential activities outside the workplace or attendance at schools, universities and childcare – social distancing includes:
- avoiding crowds and mass gatherings where it is difficult to keep the appropriate distance away from others
- avoiding small gatherings in enclosed spaces, for example family celebrations
- attempting to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between themselves and other people where possible, for example when they are out and about in public place.
- avoiding shaking hands, hugging, or kissing other people.
- avoiding visiting vulnerable people, such as those in aged care facilities or hospitals, infants, or people with compromised immune systems due to illness or medical treatment.
Who should practice social distancing?
Everyone should practice social distancing, as it reduces the potential for transmission.
Should I be bulk-buying items to prepare?
There is no need to bulk-buy products at supermarkets including toilet paper, paracetamol and canned food.
It is prudent for households to have a small stock of non-perishable groceries to cover the event that in the coming months the household has been asked to self-isolate for 14 days. However, it’s important to note the role of family and friends in supporting those in isolation and also to note that online grocery delivery services are now available in most areas.
You can help stop coronavirus in its tracks