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Coronavirus hits Bay Area: What residents need to know

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For critical info on the coronavirus pandemic’s impact in California and the Bay Area:

Where can I get tested? | Going to the doctor | Can I get it again?

Mental health | Sex | Should I wear a mask?

What’s open? What’s closed? | Transit | School closures | Touching surfaces

Food and grocery stores | Restaurants open for delivery, takeout | Food safety

Where to seek financial help | Who’s hiring? | Stimulus money

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What older people need to know | Can California close its borders?

Where to donate | How to help

For weeks, the staff of The Chronicle has been working to provide our readers with as much useful news and information as possible about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Declared a global pandemic, the virus is expected to spread farther across the U.S. and the world.

To help Bay Area residents understand and protect themselves, we have compiled this guide to some of the most important facts we have been able to gather and verify about the virus and its impacts. Here’s what you should know:

What is the new coronavirus?

The new coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, is part of a large family of such viruses. Two other kinds of coronaviruses are known to cause the potentially fatal illnesses SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). Coronaviruses also cause very mild illness and are thought to be responsible for 10% to 30% of all common colds.

Read more about the science of the coronavirus: young people not impervious, how rate of infection compares to other diseases, and more.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can vary, but the main ones are fever and cough, plus shortness of breath as the illness progresses. People with COVID-19 tend not to have runny nose and sinus congestion or gastrointestinal issues that often come along with influenza.

Coronavirus or not? What to do if symptoms show up

How does it spread?

Like the flu, COVID-19 is an infectious respiratory illness, but it is caused by a different virus. Both are spread by droplets that are expelled with sneezes and coughs. It is not yet known exactly how long the virus can linger in the air or on surfaces. People who are sick should cough or sneeze into their arm or a tissue, not into their hands. Ideally they should stay home and avoid being around other people. In some cases, doctors may advise people who are sick to wear a simple surgical mask in public to avoid infecting others. Most people become infected by touching their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands because that’s the easiest way for viruses to enter the body.

How dangerous is it?

About 80% of people who have contracted the virus have had mild symptoms and do not need to be hospitalized, according to large studies of cases in China. About 14% become severely ill and 5% critically ill. Those most at risk of becoming seriously ill are over age 50 or have underlying health problems, such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, or have weakened immune systems.

What should I do if I have symptoms?

If your condition is not urgent, contact your doctor or an urgent care clinic. Call ahead in case they need to redirect you to another medical center or emergency room. If your health care provider uses telemedicine, such as video chatting, you may want to consider that to avoid potentially exposing others. Also, many counties have set up special phone lines for coronavirus inquiries from the public; your county public health department should have this information online.

If you believe your symptoms are urgent and you need to go to the ER, try to call ahead so that health care providers are prepared to isolate you and take other precautions to protect you and other patients when you arrive.

How can I get tested?

Individuals can request a test for coronavirus, but doctors and public health authorities will decide whether that’s appropriate.

The Chronicle has heard from a number of Bay Area residents expressing frustration about delays, red tape and conflicting information on whether, where and how they can get tested. Some have had contact with a recent traveler to countries where the virus is widespread, are showing symptoms of fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, and are in high-risk groups based on their age (50 and above) and chronic health conditions.

Here is a list of Bay Area locations where testing is available, who can get it and the conditions that must be met to get tested. Most require a doctor’s order.

All providers emphasize that because of a nationwide shortage, tests are limited and are being prioritized for the sickest and highest-risk patients. The amount of time it takes to get results back varies depending on if the test is being processed in-house, which is faster, or sent to a lab at another location, which takes longer. The test entails taking a sample from a patient, which can be uncomfortable because a swab has to go up the nose or down the throat.

Is there a vaccine?

Not yet. Development and testing of a vaccine could take a year or more.

What is the treatment? Is there a cure?

There is no specific treatment for a COVID-19 infection. Those with symptoms should rest, drink fluids, take a fever suppressant as needed and not go to work or school. Older people and those with underlying health problems should check with their doctors at the onset of symptoms and watch carefully for complications. At the hospital, patients can get oxygen if they have trouble breathing, and those who can no longer breathe on their own may need a ventilator. People with less severe cases may receive fluids and medication to lower fevers.

While the flu can be prevented with a vaccine and treated with antiviral drugs, similar tools do not yet exist to fight COVID-19. A potential treatment — Gilead's drug remdesivir — is in a clinical trial, which is expected to report results in April. Even if the trial is successful, however, it could still be months before it is available for widespread use.

How many people in the Bay Area and California have it?

As of Saturday, March 28:

5,008 confirmed cases in California

103 confirmed deaths in California

1,706 confirmed cases in the Bay Area

The numbers are changing every day. For the latest numbers as well as data on testing and a look at how cases have changed over time, go to The Chronicle’s Coronavirus Map.

What were the first Bay Area COVID-19 cases?

The first case was reported in Santa Clara County on Jan. 31. The earliest cases were in individuals who had recently been to China, who had close contact with someone already infected, or who had been passengers on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, the source of a large outbreak off the coast of Japan.

The first local case of unknown origin was reported in Solano County on Feb. 26, suggesting the virus was spreading in the community.

What steps can I take to protect myself?

The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth, stop shaking hands, avoid large gatherings and practice social distancing. While a respiratory vaccine like one to prevent pneumonia will not guard against the coronavirus, it can help protect high-risk individuals who could develop pneumonia after falling ill.

Should you wear a mask? Here’s the answer.

Are there cleaners that kill coronavirus?

A bar of soap can effectively kill coronavirus when you wash and rinse your hands thoroughly, for a recommended 20 seconds or more. Hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol can be effective, too, but is less recommended than soap and water. For cleaning surfaces, common household products including bleach (4 teaspoons in 1 quart of water), solutions with at least 70% alcohol, hydrogen peroxide (3%) and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants are effective. Wearing gloves is highly recommended.

What is social distancing, and why is it important?

Social distancing measures are meant to slow the spread of diseases like COVID-19 that are believed to be circulating in the community but not yet widespread. These include self-isolating (staying home), avoiding large crowds, restricting travel and keeping a distance from others in general. Other recommendations include canceling large gatherings, such as concerts and sporting events, as many localities and organizations have done, and closing schools as needed. Authorities’ goal is to ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed with critically ill patients.

Coronavirus social distancing, quarantine, self-isolation: What does it mean?

The Bay Area has been ordered to stay at home. What does that mean?

Counties across the Bay Area have ordered residents to shelter in place until at least April 7 as health officials struggle to keep the coronavirus from spreading across the region.

Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians on March 19 to stay home and leave only for essential trips, mirroring the directives that local health officials already had in place. The state order does not supersede the local directives.

Counties have shut down all but the most critical operations, according to the health orders. Places that attract clusters of people, like gyms, nightclubs or bars, have closed. Restaurants must serve only take-out or delivery orders. Hospitals, grocery stores, banks and pharmacies remain open.

All nonessential gatherings of any size are now banned.

People are still able to leave their homes to handle essential business in limited circumstances — like buying groceries or picking up medicine — and to get fresh air. But when people do need to leave their homes, health officials are requiring they maintain at least six feet from other individuals and that they wash their hands for at least 20 seconds as often as possible. They’re also calling on people to cover their coughs and sneezes and to avoid shaking hands.

More info on going outdoors: Shelter-in-place requires social distancing in the outdoors

More Information

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What precautions are being taken in health care settings?

Patients are being advised to call before going to any medical office, including emergency rooms, so that health care providers can take appropriate precautions.

Health care workers treating suspected COVID-19 patients must wear gloves, hospital gowns, eye protection such as goggles or a face shield, and use an N95 mask or respirator. They must report the patient to the county health department and collect samples for testing, according to the CDC.

Whom can I contact for more information?

The California Department of Public Health can be reached by phone at 1-800-852-7550. Ask for the duty officer.

Contact information for every local health department in California can be found here.

Is it dangerous to fly?

Federal officials have recommended that people reconsider traveling during the outbreak; President Trump has advised against “discretionary travel.” They also suspended travel to and from Europe until mid-April for non-U.S. citizens. Travel rules are changing rapidly. Airlines have been cutting flights both domestically and internationally, so if you fly, it could be harder to return home. Review the general advice about avoiding large crowds; older people and those with health conditions may wish to use extra caution, as an increasing number of local authorities urge people in this category to limit outings.

Is there financial help available?

Congress approved a relief package including two weeks of paid sick leave, up to three months of paid family and medical leave, enhanced unemployment benefits, free virus testing, additional food aid and funds for Medicaid.

San Francisco has said it will fund five additional days of paid sick leave during the crisis for private-sector workers who have exhausted their own.

California workers may be eligible for a range of benefits, including paid sick leave, paid family leave, unemployment insurance and state disability insurance. The state’s Work Sharing Program lets employers reduce employees’ hours and wages, which can be partially offset with unemployment insurance.

For more on these and other programs administered by the state Employment Development Department, go here.

Official information about the rights and responsibilities of California employees and employers in light of COVID-19 can be found here.

Some nonprofit agencies are also offering or planning relief help. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, for example, is calling for donors to support its regional response fund for Bay Area charities. Those charities include Adopt a Family of Marin, the Napa Valley Community Foundation, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, Catholic Charities of San Francisco, Destination: Home of Santa Clara, the Community Foundations of Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties, and the Solano Community Foundation.

Banks including Wells Fargo, PNC Bank and Citibank are offering banking and credit card relief.

The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing fund offers grants for housing and emergency needs through dozens of community service agencies. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Tipping Point Community also help provide emergency relief to those in need through numerous charities across the Bay Area. All are currently seeking new donations to help fund the charities they support.

Read more: How you can help Bay Area nonprofits that provide aid

How did the coronavirus get started?

Chinese health officials alerted the World Health Organization about a growing number of cases of pneumonia caused by an unidentified virus in the city of Wuhan in late December. The new coronavirus was identified about two weeks after that.

Coronaviruses can cross over from animals to humans. The virus that causes SARS is believed to have passed from bats to civets and then to humans, and the MERS virus was linked to camels. But scientists have not yet determined the source of the new coronavirus.

When will this be over?

That’s not clear. Other coronaviruses, such as those that cause the common cold, tend to be seasonal — which means the virus could wane in the summer, though even if that happens it could still return in the fall. The coronavirus that caused SARS appears to have disappeared about a year after it was identified in 2004. It’s too soon to say what will happen with the new coronavirus. But there is no immediate end in sight.

Read: Will California’s shelter in place work to slow the coronavirus pandemic?

— Researched and edited by Chronicle staff. Graphics by Todd Trumbull, John Blanchard and Tam Duong