Who is most at risk? All your burning questions about COVID-19 answered by an expert.

At the time of reporting, there are over 205,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, now officially known as COVID-19, worldwide.

In Australian alone, the number of confirmed cases has risen to over 450, while six people have died from the virus.

As cases of the virus continue to rise worldwide and new measures are introduced across Australia to prevent the spread of the pandemic, panic about not being able to access basics – like toilet paper – has continued to spread among Australian communities.

In fact, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find staples like toilet paper, paracetamol, rice, pasta, and even mince meat in supermarkets across the country.

At a time where an overwhelming amount of stories about stockpiling, death tolls, quarantine and strict travel bans have emerged, it’s no wonder some Australians are starting to panic.

Listen to The Quicky, Mamamia’s daily news podcast, to find out all the answers to your questions about coronavirus. Post continues below.

Hoping to separate fact from fiction, Mamamia‘s daily news podcast, The Quicky, spoke to infectious disease specialist Dr Sanjaya Sanananyaka from the Australian National University to answer all your questions about coronavirus.

From questions about whether stockpiling is really necessary, to a rundown on exactly how the virus spreads, here’s what he had to say:

Do I need to wear a mask?

“There are two situations where a mask will help. In the hospital setting – if you’re a healthcare worker seeing a person with coronavirus – it will help. If we’re having a wider outbreak in Australia and you’re looking after someone at home with coronavirus, wearing a mask will help. But generally wearing it in the wider community won’t be as helpful as practising good hand hygiene.”

Is this coronavirus any more dangerous than a standard flu season?

“The differences between the standard flu season and this coronavirus is that none of us are immune to this coronavirus. None of us have been exposed to it before. With the flu, we’ve got varying degrees of immunity and we’ve got a flu vaccine.”

How do I know if I have the coronavirus?

“It’s very hard to tell. There are some people, a very small proportion, who can be affected and not have symptoms. Others may have a very mild flu-like illness, while others may be more severely ill and have pneumonia. The most common symptoms are fever and a cough and then a variety of symptoms can follow that including muscle aches and pains, sore throat and even diarrhea.”


Who is most at risk of catching this coronavirus?

“We’re all at risk of catching coronavirus because none of us are immune to it. In terms of those people who are most likely to get really sick from it, it looks to be people over the age of 65 and people who have more health issues, such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes. It looks like men get worse cases than women, which could be because men are more likely to have those underlying health conditions and women typically have stronger immune systems.”

How do we protect people that are more vulnerable in the community?

“We should have active surveillance in Australia to focus on those areas where people are at home, such as nursing homes, and keep communicating on a daily basis from the government to the people about who is most at risk, what they need to look for and when they need to seek medical attention. Social distancing, which is shutting down large gatherings of people, should also help limit the spread of the virus.”

If I’m a young healthy person, what are the chances of dying from the coronavirus?

“The chances are extremely low. You have an 80 per cent chance of just having a very mild flu-like illness, which you’ll possibly get over without even having to see a doctor.”

How do you die from coronavirus?

“It looks like a large proportion of those [who pass away from the virus] are getting a lot of inflammation in the lungs and a smaller proportion are also getting failure of other organs, such as the kidneys.”

Can our health system, as it currently stands, handle a virus outbreak if it does get to pandemic level?

“It will depend on how extensive the transmission is in Australia. It might be relatively limited or it might be very widespread. There will be a tipping point for the public hospital system, which as you know is often close to capacity without a coronavirus present.”

If I get a fever and a cough and I’m concerned that it’s coronavirus, should I stay home and isolate myself or do I immediately go to the doctor?

“If you get a fever or a cough, that could be due to so many things. If you’re concerned that it’s coronavirus, it would be worth calling ahead to your local doctor. I would not advise if you’re unwell that you go to the emergency department. Call ahead to your GP and he or she will determine whether you need to be tested.”

Here’s exactly how to protect yourself from COVID-19. Post continues below.


How is coronavirus treated?

“Unfortunately, there is currently no approved treatment to the virus. You can treat the symptoms and if people are sick enough to go to hospital, there are supported measures we can use in hospital as well. There are also anti-viral agents that are used for other viruses, such as HIV and medicines against malaria, which might have some activity against the virus.”

How is coronavirus spreading at this stage? How long can coronavirus live on surfaces?

“We’re not 100 per cent sure but we think that if it’s similar to other coronaviruses, it spreads mainly by droplets, so particularly when people cough or sneeze, droplets of mucus containing virus particles drop about one metre in front of that person.

“They can fall onto surfaces that people touch with their hands and then they can touch their face and get infected. Or, of course, the infected person coughs or sneezes into their hand and someone else shakes their hand and then they can get infected that way.”

How far are we away from a coronavirus vaccine?

“We’re many months away from a vaccine. Some people are saying six months, which seems optimistic. More realistically, it will be around 10 to 12 months until we have a vaccine that can safely be distributed to people around the world.”

Can you get this coronavirus more than once?

“At the moment, we don’t know yet because it’s so early on in the outbreak. We know from other coronaviruses that it’s likely that we’ll get at least short-term immunity from it. So if you’ve just had it, you’re unlikely to get it again shortly. But whether in a year or two you’ll be susceptible again, that’s unclear.”

Are children being infected with coronavirus?

“Kids don’t seem to be getting very sick with it. About two per cent of all the cases have been people under the age of 19. They don’t seem to get very severe illnesses either – they just get a very minor infection. One possibility is that they’re simply not being picked up or detected or they’re not getting symptoms when detected.”

What precautions can pregnant women take for coronavirus?

“The data is not quite clear on that yet. There have been pregnant women who have had this so far and to our knowledge, there doesn’t seem to be a great problem with it compared to influenza, which can be very dangerous.”

If I travelled recently, should I be self-quarantining?

Under new government regulations, all international arrivals to Australia will be required to self isolate for 14 days upon their return. It is considered an offence if an international arrival does not follow this government order.

How long do we see this coronavirus going on for?

“We don’t know. It really is hard to know and it will depend a lot on how other countries respond to the outbreak and limiting transmission. By the time a vaccine is developed, that will definitely help stop the outbreak.”


Some more common questions:

How many cases of coronavirus are there in Australia?

At the time of reporting on March 19, there are over 205,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide across 166 countries, areas or territories.

In Australia, there are currently more than 450 confirmed cases. Of those cases reported, more than 40 of those cases have since recovered.

How many people have died from coronavirus?

At the time of reporting, more than 8,600 people have died as a result of coronavirus worldwide.

In Australia, six people have died.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

Speaking to The Quicky, Dr Brad McKay said the general symptoms of coronavirus include “having a bit of a fever, a sore throat, coughing, some generalised aches and pains which you can get with the flu or the common cold”.

“Most people who get it will be fine. 80 per cent of people will just get a sniffle or may not even notice that they’ve got the infection and that will hopefully give them immunity going forward, but it is about 20 per cent of people that will get quite unwell from it and some of those people will need to be in hospital, and some of those people will need intensive care.”


Dr McKay said that information from doctors in Italy, which is in lockdown with more than 35,o00 reported cases and over 2,900 deaths, indicates about 10 per cent of people who present to emergency departments end up on ventilators.

“And we’re finding that it’s a rate of about one to two per cent of people who do get the infection will die from it,” he said.

How do I get tested for coronavirus?

If you have symptoms of coronavirus – like a cough, fever or shortness of breath – authorities recommend you seek medical attention. Before booking an appointment, call ahead to your GP to determine whether you will need to be tested for COVID-19. This may depend on your travel history or whether you have had any close contact with someone who has the coronavirus.

It’s important to remember, however, that these symptoms could also be the result of another illness, like the common cold or influenza.

Testing for the coronavirus can take place at a GP or a hospital emergency department.

Testing methods can include a swab test from the back of your throat or inside your nose or a sputum sample test. While waiting for a result, patients are asked to self-isolate.

Feature Image: Getty.

For more on COVID-19:

The Australian Government Department of Health advises that the only people who will be tested for COVID-19 are those with symptoms who have either returned from overseas in the past 14 days or been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days. 

If you are sick and believe you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your GP ahead of time to book an appointment. Or call the national Coronavirus Health Information Line for advice on 1800 020 080. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. 

To keep up to date with the latest information, please visit the Department of Health website.

This post was originally published on March 10, 2020, and updated on March 19, 2020. 

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