Novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, has been sweeping the globe, and citizens are asking their governments how they can prepare for the possibility of a pandemic, a scenario in which nearly everyone is exposed to the virus.
Generally speaking, experts recommend preparing for a potential pandemic the same way you would for a potential earthquake or tornado, and get ready for the possibility of being at home for an extended period of time. By collecting essential items in advance, you can avoid crowded areas during an outbreak and decrease your contact with potentially sick people if faced with nearby community spread of COVID-19.
While there isn't a vaccine to protect against novel coronavirus, nor any approved treatment, there are important steps that you can take to protect yourself and loved ones, according to Dr. Robert Gatter, an emergency room physician at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Basic healthy behaviors -- staying hydrated, eating healthy meals, exercising, sleeping for at least seven hours per night -- are simple ways to help protect against infectious diseases. Getting other vaccinations also is important, especially for older adults, who are at higher risk for contracting severe forms of COVID-19.
"Older persons should make sure they get vaccinated against pneumonia and shingles, since these are more likely if they develop a viral infection such as the coronavirus," Gatter said. Additional common sense health measures, like staying home from work or school if you have a fever or cough, are key.
"It's important to stay calm and not panic. Make sure you get a flu shot. [You're] much more likely to contract the flu than a coronavirus infection," Glatter said.
Here are simple steps you can take to prepare:
Should I stock up on food or medicine?
If you have children, reach out to schools to see what protocols are in place for students presenting with fevers Ask about contingency plans if schools close, like tele-schooling, or other childcare options Stock up on non-perishable food, bottled water and medicine If you or a family member takes daily medication, have a two- to four-week supply on hand Have essential medicines on hand, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen to treat fevers or muscle aches
How can I avoid getting sick?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all individuals take the following steps, regardless of illness or pandemic status.
Avoid contact with sick people Don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth Discuss travel history with your health care provider Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds If you can't wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol It is especially important to clean your hands after going to the bathroom, before eating and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
What if I traveled within the last 14 days and have a cough, fever or trouble breathing?
Seek medical advice -- call ahead before going to the doctor's office or emergency room Tell your health care provider about recent travel history Avoid contact with others Don't travel while sick Avoid large gatherings of people Practice respiratory etiquette: Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve -- not your hands -- when coughing or sneezing If you have a fever, you are considered contagious for at least 24 hours Stay home until you are fever free for at least 24 hours, without the use of anti-fever medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen For those with chronic medical conditions, it's important to be in contact with your provider and have an emergency plan in case you become sick If you are pregnant, contact your OBGYN with questions or concerns People with suppressed immune systems, who have cancer or who are pregnant are at much higher risk for complications from COVID-19
Are there any additional measures I can take?
According to Gatter, "If you are living with someone who has a fever and cough or who is under a quarantine, wearing a mask is advisable, since it will protect you from infectious mucus and saliva," he said.
"That said," he added, "it is not necessary for the general public to wear a mask at this time. Practicing effective hand hygiene is more important."
Other measures include:
Voluntary home quarantine: It's very important to stay at home when sick. People who are not sick, but live with someone who is believed to be exposed should voluntarily quarantine themselves as a personal protective measure during a pandemic, until you feel completely well again. It's a good idea to let your local health department know you're self-quarantining.Face masks:The CDC does NOT recommend that people who are well wear face masks to avoid infection. Wearing a face mask while sick is recommended during a pandemic, when crowded community settings or close contact with others cannot be avoided. Face mask use by ill people could help protect others.
Yalda Safai M.D., M.P.H., a psychiatry resident in New York City, and Angela N. Baldwin M.D., M.P.H., a pathology resident at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, are contributors to ABC News Medical Unit.