Editor’s note, March 31: There have been significant developments in the coronavirus pandemic since this story was last updated, and some details may no longer apply. For our most up-to-date coverage, visit our coronavirus hub. Here’s the CDC’s current public health guidance.
The novel coronavirus is continuing its spread in the United States. The number of people testing positive in the US has jumped every day for the past few weeks, with cases announced in more states. That’s despite serious limitations on testing, which means many US cases may be undiscovered.
The World Health Organization has declared the virus a global pandemic, and doctors in Italy — a country hit hard by the virus — warned the world that if we continue on the same trajectory, we’ll soon be out of hospital beds.
Around the US, events are being canceled, schools are closing, and public health officials are urging people to avoid public spaces as much as possible. “We are on the brink of experiencing a public health catastrophe,” argued Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.
These fast-moving developments have many Americans wondering — wait, what preparations are now necessary? How does social distancing work, exactly? Is stockpiling food a sensible idea or a massive overreaction?
“The most important recommendation is don’t panic, but prepare,” Dr. Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, told me in late February. “We’re not going into a crazy movie situation where the world is on fire, but we may be going into a situation where there are people walking around who are sick.”
Having supplies to wait out an illness at home, and reducing contact with others before you get sick, will benefit not just you but also your loved ones, your neighbors, and people in your community. You don’t need to take major steps to survive without electricity or water (both should keep working just fine), but changing your habits and shopping patterns and planning ahead can protect you and others.
“Preparing for the almost inevitable global spread of this virus, now dubbed COVID-19, is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind,” Zeynep Tufekci argued in Scientific American.
And yet, as risk communications expert Peter Sandman observed, many people “haven’t changed their daily lives much yet, or even planned much for the life changes that they sort-of suspect are just around the corner.”
If we’re going to stop the spread of the coronavirus before it’s a national catastrophe, that has to change.
So, yes, you should be taking some steps to get ready. Here’s the reasonable person’s guide to coronavirus preparation, where we (with help from public health experts) try to help you not panic, but prepare.
1) Seriously, wash your hands
Some of the most impactful steps to stop a coronavirus outbreak are ones we are all aware of but often find it hard to put into practice.
“Wash your hands much more than you think you need to wash your hands and try not to touch your face,” Katz told me. “It’s not satisfactory because people feel they should be doing much more, but at this point, it’s the best advice we can be giving.”
According to the CDC, you should “wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.” If soap and water aren’t readily available and your hands are not visibly dirty, you can also use hand sanitizer.
You should also avoid shaking hands, use a tissue when you blow your nose and put the tissue in the trash, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. “General health maintenance is important,” Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch told me. “Quit smoking, if you smoke — that’s a good recommendation at all times, but maybe some people will use this as extra motivation.” Taking care of yourself will put you in a better position to weather the coronavirus and pays dividends even if you never get sick.
2) Stay away from public spaces as much as possible
The only way to slow the spread of the virus once there’s widespread community transmission in the US is to avoid being in close contact with large numbers of people.
Social distancing — a term that refers to any measures to reduce human contact, like canceling events, working from home, or ordering food rather than going to the grocery store — can help make the outbreak unfold more slowly, saving lives.
Conferences and large events should be canceled. At one Boston conference, more than 70 people caught the virus from a fellow attendee, and large conferences from AIPAC to CPAC have had attendees test positive. This is simply a matter of math — get enough people in a single place, and some of them will have coronavirus.
For that reason, many counties and states have prohibited large public gatherings, and many organizations — including Disney and the NBA — have canceled operations due to virus risk. But even if such gatherings aren’t prohibited in your area, don’t go.
“Conventions, parades, sports events, and other large public gatherings that risk transmission should be canceled or postponed,” Lipsitch said on March 11. “Efforts to reduce contacts should focus on the most vulnerable (elderly and those with certain serious chronic medical conditions), but not be restricted to them, because all of us can become infected and transmit the virus, even without severe symptoms.”
If you are able to work from home, you should do so; this makes public transit, offices and urban spaces less crowded for people who cannot work from home. Smaller gatherings where people are at least six feet away from each other are much safer.
3) If you get sick, you might be out of commission for a few days or weeks. Get the things you’d need to manage that.
The majority of cases of Covid-19 don’t require hospitalization. You might have a fever, feel very sick, and recover slowly over the course of a few weeks. You can take steps in advance to make sure this isn’t too disruptive, and taking those steps now is a good idea. (And if you do get sick, here’s the symptoms of Covid-19 — the most common are fever and a dry cough — and here’s how to self-isolate if recommended by a health professional to protect people in your home and community.)
“If you get sick, the last thing you want to do is have to go to the store,” Katz told me. “What do you want to have on hand?” Purchasing a couple of weeks’ supply of foods you’d want while home sick with the flu is a good idea. You might want medication for managing a fever, like Tylenol and ibuprofen, supplies for managing a cough, like cough syrup, liquids, or hard candies, and other essentials: toilet paper, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent.
We should be “getting ready for the possibility that people will want to stay at home or be asked to stay at home,” Lipsitch told me. That means thinking about what you might need to buy in the next month and trying to buy as much of it as possible now.
“If you are somebody who takes daily medication, you want to have more than a week’s supply, and really, you want to have as much of that on hand as your insurance will allow you to have,” Katz said.
“People might want to slowly start to stock up on enough nonperishable food to last their households through several weeks of social distancing at home during an intense wave of transmission in their community,” risk communications experts Jody Lanard and Peter Sandman wrote in January.
None of these recommendations are specific to the coronavirus. They would also be good advice if your town were about to experience a blizzard, a hurricane, or a flood. Katz thinks that’s a good way to think about the situation. In any disaster, it’s a good idea to plan to have what you need during a period where you might get stuck in your home. The coronavirus doesn’t need to be wildly exceptional to warrant such preparations.
“If there’s a situation where people in your community are sick,” Katz asked me, “do you want to potentially expose yourself for a toilet paper run?”
Of course, not everyone can afford to stock up on a month of supplies, and not everyone has space to store them. But anything you can arrange ahead of time means one less inconvenience or one less trip while you’re sick.
4) Consider what you’d do if schools and day cares are closed
Around the US, schools are closing — though even in areas that are the center of a viral outbreak, some districts are fighting to keep their schools open. Maryland announced they’re closing all schools for two weeks. Seattle is closing all schools for two weeks as well, and New Mexico for three. Hard-hit Santa Clara County, California, on the other hand, is keeping almost all of its schools open. Colleges and universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley have shut down and told students not to come back from spring break. More closures are no doubt to come.
The closure of schools is enormously disruptive to the lives of many families, and planning for that possibility might be one of the most important forms of coronavirus preparation you can do now. It’s “important to be at the family level doing some contingency planning for if schools are closed for a period of time or if your day care is closed,” Katz said.
While most influenzas hit children and elderly people hardest, that’s not the pattern that has been observed with the coronavirus so far. If that’s because children get infected but tend to have mild cases, then schools will be a major avenue for virus transmission and need to close.
Unfortunately, school districts are having to make key decisions about whether to close before all this information is in, and many of them are sensibly erring on the cautious side.
5) Psychological preparation is important too
Pandemics are scary. The spread of the coronavirus within the US could be a significant disruption to many people’s lives, a health crisis for some smaller number of people, and a deadly tragedy for a still-smaller number.
“It helps to be a little psychologically prepared for the possibility that life will be very different for a period of time,” Lipsitch told me. Processing that possibility now can help us “get over the surprise of that, to some extent, before it happens.” So coronavirus paranoia, if you’re experiencing some, isn’t silly or unreasonable — it’s part of the totally normal process of coming to grips with a significant problem.
“The ‘adjustment reaction’” — that is, the stress, hypervigilance, obsessive reading about a crisis, imagining its effects on your family, and worrying — “is a step that is hard to skip on the way to the new normal,” Lanard and Sandman write. “Going through it before a crisis is full-blown is more conducive to resilience, coping, and rational response than going through it mid-crisis.”
So be forgiving of yourself if you’re having an “adjustment reaction” or if your friends and loved ones are. The spread of the coronavirus will be genuinely disruptive, difficult, and for some people dangerous. Taking real steps to mitigate the effects it will have on you or your family isn’t a silly thing to do — it’s a responsible one.
Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.
Future Perfect is funded in part by individual contributions, grants, and sponsorships. Learn more here.