The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues to grow and cases have now been reported from multiple countries worldwide. Although it isn’t possible to accurately predict the course of the outbreak, there is growing concern that novel coronavirus might be the next pandemic virus, spreading around the world.


Why should I prepare now?

COVID-19 is now present, but not spreading widely, in the United States. But, as the outbreak continues to spread in multiple countries, individuals and communities should take the opportunity to prepare now, in case it becomes a significant health threat locally.

Understanding how public health officials respond to pandemics is part of preparing. Many of the same steps that are part of national, state and local pandemic influenza preparedness plans are likely to be useful for COVID-19 preparedness. Again, it’s a good idea to be familiar with what might be recommended in order to help prepare now.


What strategies will public health officials use in the event of a COVID-19 pandemic?

Based on current knowledge of COVID-19, one or more of the following strategies called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) might be considered. These interventions are used to decrease the risk of infection on a community level. Health officials will consider specific strategies that will depend on the number of people that become ill, the severity of illnesses and other local conditions including estimated costs and potential benefits.

If there is a serious pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others will recommend steps that individuals, organizations and communities put into place to help slow the spread of illness during an infectious disease outbreak and are a key part of pandemic preparedness.


What steps can people take for personal protection?

  • Stay home when you are sick. Staying home when ill prevents the spread of infections to others.
  • Use good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene in all community settings, including homes, childcare facilities, schools, workplaces and other places where people gather. Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and put the used tissue in a waste basket. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.
  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with at least 60-95% alcohol) if you can’t wash.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth: Germs often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Practice other good health habits: Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat nutritious food.


What other preventive steps might be required in a COVID-19 pandemic?

Voluntary home quarantine

Staying home when sick is an important step to limit the spread of illness. During a severe pandemic, public health officials may also ask that people who are not sick to voluntarily quarantine themselves at home when someone they live with is believed to be infected with the virus.

Depending on how COVID-19 spreads in the community, voluntary home quarantine of exposed household members might be recommended as a personal protective measure during a severe pandemic in combination with other personal protective measures, such as respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.

Use of face masks by people who are well:

CDC does not routinely recommend the use of face masks by people who are not sick—either in the home or other community settings—as a means of avoiding infection from COVID-19. Furthermore, people wear masks for a variety of reasons, including to avoid pollen and air pollution, as a courtesy to others when they have the common cold, and for other cultural and even social reasons. Because mask use is customary in some cultures, it’s not appropriate to make assumptions about why someone is wearing a mask or to stigmatize or discriminate against people who choose to wear masks.

Use of face masks by people who are ill:

The use of face masks by ill people might be recommended during a severe pandemic when crowded community settings cannot be avoided (for example, when people with COVID-19 symptoms seek medical attention).

Another example of when a mask might be appropriate is when ill people are in close contact with others and share common spaces with other household members, or when symptomatic postpartum women care for and nurse their infants. Face mask use by ill people might protect others from infection in these situations.


What can communities do to prepare for a COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s good to start thinking about some of the things that might be recommended on the community level now, so that everyone is better prepared.

Community measures include “social distancing” interventions in schools, workplaces, events, meetings and other places where people gather. Social distancing means creating ways to increase space between people in settings where people commonly come into close contact with one another to reduce the spread of infection. Multiple simultaneous social distancing measures might be recommended to help reduce the spread during a severe pandemic.

One example of social distancing is to increase the distance to at least six feet between people when possible to reduce person-to-person spread of infection. This applies to apparently healthy people without symptoms, while standing in line at a store or gathering at a meeting. In the event of a very severe pandemic, this recommended minimal distance between people might be increased.

People who show symptoms of COVID-19 and who might be infected should be separated from well people as soon as practical, sent home, and asked to isolate themselves from others at the home.

Other social distancing measures include temporarily dismissing childcare centers and schools. In addition, social distancing may include discouraging people from attending, or even closing sporting events, concerts, festivals, conferences, places of worship, and other settings where groups of people gather.


What can businesses do to prepare for a pandemic?

Businesses and other organizations should be prepared for increasing numbers of absences and the impact on their operations. Specific guidance for businesses is available on the CDC’s website. Local guidance for Spokane businesses can be found here:


Are special cleaning measures important during a pandemic?

Everyone can help to keep the environment germ-free by cleaning frequently touched surfaces and objects. Regularly cleaning surfaces and objects that are frequently touched is recommended in all settings, including homes, schools and workplaces, to remove viruses and bacteria that can cause illnesses—and this might help prevent transmission of novel coronavirus as well.


What else can people do to help each other and their community right now?

An important thing to remember, especially when considering the COVID-19 outbreak, is that supporting each other, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality, and including individuals who have become ill, is essential. While COVID-19 originated in China, any individual is susceptible to this disease, which does not differentiate between ethnicities or races. It’s also important to share this information and encourage others to understand this. You can help reduce stigma and bias and educate others in the following ways:

  • Rely on and share trusted sources of information about the causes of outbreaks from reputable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington State Department of Health
  • Speak up if you hear, see or read stigmatizing or harassing comments or misinformation
  • Show compassion and support for individuals and communities most closely impacted and anyone who might be sick


Is there any guidance for people who are planning to travel?

Visit the COVID-19 Travel Information page for more information about recommended travel precautions.


Will travel insurance pay if I cancel a trip because of a health epidemic?

According to the Washington state insurance commissioner, many travel insurance policies exclude trip cancellations due to a known outbreak of a disease. The coronavirus outbreak became a known epidemic around Jan. 22, 2020. In travel insurance terms, any travel booked or policy bought after that time would have occurred during a known epidemic and therefore a related trip cancellation wouldn’t be covered.

This leaves some people wondering what options they have, other than avoiding travel. Some companies offer “cancel for any reason” travel insurance. It typically costs at least double the amount of standard travel insurance and promises to pay if the purchaser cancels a trip for any reason. These policies may cover more cancellations than standard travel policies, and they limit reimbursement to a certain percentage of the trip—75% is a common figure.

As with any insurance policy, it is important to read the fine print and ask or resolve any questions about the policy before purchase.


Does medical insurance cover treatment for COVID-19?

The Washington state insurance commissioner states that, in general, comprehensive health insurance plans will cover treatment for coronavirus just like any other illness. This is because health insurers must cover treatment if it’s considered medically necessary.

Individuals who have a short-term, limited duration health plan or who participate in a health sharing ministry, may need to check their coverage first. These types of health coverage do not provide the same level of benefits as comprehensive health insurance plans and may not cover all services, such as lab work.


For more information about what individuals, families, schools, and workplaces can do to prepare for a pandemic, see this guidance from the CDC.

*Content courtesy of Public Health – Seattle & King County and the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner.