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4 reader questions about the coronavirus pandemic, answered

How does Covid-19 progress? What’s up with those WHO tests? These questions and more, answered.

Medical personnel take samples from patients at a “drive-thru” coronavirus testing lab in Miami, Florida, on March 16, 2020.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

We’re trying something new: You have coronavirus questions, I will try to provide answers. I would like to make this mailbag a recurring bit while the pandemic is still going, so send me your questions: dylan.scott@vox.com. I can’t answer them all, but I’ll do what I can.

First up, from Janice H., who inspired the whole idea:

No one has mentioned what the normal progression of this virus is if you catch it. It makes a big difference if it normally presents as a 101 or more horrifically a 105 fever. Does it typically last 3 days or 10 days? Is it the achy, shakey, cold sweat flu or something different. Is the cough like the croupe or like an agonized seal?

These are good questions! What does the coronavirus actually feel like if you have it?

For starters, I would point people to this chart, which tries to distinguish Covid-19 symptoms from those of the common cold or the flu:

World Health Organization

According to Harvard Medical School, coronavirus usually presents with a low-grade fever. But a high fever (along with shortness of breath and a severe cough) may indicate a patient has pneumonia and should seek medical help immediately.

How long does Covid-19 last? According to the World Health Organization’s analysis of cases in China, mild cases typically last two weeks from onset to recovery. For more severe cases, it can be three to six weeks.

Part of the difficulty here is the symptoms can vary so widely, from no symptoms at all to severe pneumonia and death. You should know your own risk: Older people and people with underlying heart and lung conditions seem to be the most vulnerable to developing severe complications.

Next question, from Kathy H.:

From the beginning, everyone uses a 14-day quarantine time frame. Where did that come from?

This one is easy: Most people develop symptoms of the Covid-19 coronavirus within five to six days of exposure, but the full range is one to 14 days, according to the WHO. So the two-week quarantine or self-isolation periods will cover even the biggest outliers, just to make certain somebody hasn’t been infected.

Here’s another good question, one you may have heard something about in the news, from E.B.W.:

The idea that we “turned down WHO tests” — is there any detail available on that. What was WHO offering? 20,000 kits or just guidance, raw reagents, what?

The United States, as you probably know, lagged far behind other countries in testing for Covid-19 during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. Which is why people were outraged when they found out President Donald Trump’s administration had decided not to use a diagnostic test that had been adopted by the WHO, deciding instead to develop our own version.

Politico has the best story I’ve read on the WHO test situation here in the US. A reliable Covid-19 diagnostic test has been available since mid-January, when a German virologist developed it based on genetic information from the outbreak in China. The WHO had sent those tests to more than 60 countries by the end of February. But not to the United States, which declined to order tests from the WHO and instead chose to produce an American test. That decision has looked bad since the Trump administration sent out faulty test kits to US labs and put the country even further behind.

So to answer E.B.’s question, the US could have ordered an existing WHO-approved diagnostic test and potentially avoided our own testing mishap and the resulting delay. We don’t know exactly why this decision was made, as the Politico report points out. The Trump White House won’t say.

But whatever the reason we didn’t, and now we are behind the curve.

Last question for today, from Stacy K.:

There only seems to be one test showing what happens to pregnant women and babies and it is from early on in Wuhan. Is there any more data or information about this?

This question was already on my mind because a few Vox reporters are pregnant and expecting babies soon, even in the next few days. The annoying answer is: we really don’t know.

As Stacy notes in her email, the early indications are that Covid-19 is not leading to serious complications in infants born to a mother with the virus. The CDC says that no infants whose mother had the disease have tested positive for it. It also says the virus has not been found in amniotic fluid or breast milk. There have been some reports of mothers diagnosed with Covid-19 delivering their babies early, but we don’t know if those preterm births are actually linked to the infection.

And all of these reports come from a very small number of cases. The sobering truth is, according to CDC: “We do not know at this time if COVID-19 would cause problems during pregnancy or affect the health of the baby after birth.”

This story appears in VoxCare, a newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Sign up to get VoxCare in your inbox along with more health care stats and news.

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