What to do if you’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus

As the number of positive coronavirus cases grows in the D.C. area, you may be wondering what you might need to do if you were given the news that you had become exposed to someone who went on to have a confirmed case.

First and foremost: Don’t panic.

It’s age-old advice and hard to follow when the threat hits home, but you do yourself and your loved ones no service by panicking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released a guide of steps to take if you think you’ve come into contact with the disease.


More coronavirus coverage


Recognize the symptoms

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, presents itself in the following ways:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath.

For those with underlying health issues, these symptoms can become severe and require hospitalization. If you are feeling these and have reason to believe you’ve come into contact with the virus, reach out to your doctor or medical provider and schedule an appointment.

Mitigate the chances of catching the virus

David Marcozzi, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the incident commander for the COVID-19 response at the university, told WTOP that the main infection point for the disease is via droplets from sneezing and coughing.

“It’s important to understand that: The number one is spread by droplet,” Marcozzi said. “Make sure that you don’t come in close contact with folks and you’re making sure that you stay out of big congregations — for instance, churches, synagogues — they need to start to think about how we can remotely support their community.”

Clean your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds after you return from a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

If soap and water are not available, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.

Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands. As WTOP breaks down, this step is easier said than done.

Contain the spread

It now falls on you to make sure the fewest number of people get the virus from you as possible — bonus points if that number is zero.

The CDC recommends taking the following steps:

  1. Isolate yourself
    • Stay home unless you are seeking medical care
    • Avoid public areas
    • Don’t take public transportation
    • Limit contact with family members, animals and pets
  2. Call your doctor before visiting
    • Let your doctor know that you may have been exposed to the new coronavirus before you go in person. This will give your health care provider time to prepare their office to keep others from becoming infected
  3. Wear a face mask if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19
    • Those who suspect they have coronavirus should wear a face mask when they are around other people
    • If someone is unable to wear a face mask (if it restricts breathing too much) then they should limit contact with others to a bare minimum, and those who do interact with them should wear face masks themselves
  4. Continue isolation for 14 days

Monitor children

Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, the division chief of infectious diseases at Children’s National Hospital, said  children with asthma, diabetes, heart conditions and kidney ailments are among those at higher risk of severe illness if they were to contract coronavirus.

“If you’re a parent of a child with an underlying condition, just like you would do during respiratory (virus) season every year, you’re going to take additional precautions and you’re also going to have a lower threshold to seek medical care,” DeBiasi said.

Patients with more significant illness will have fevers and cough, but DeBiasi said breathing problems are a typical trigger for seeking medical care.

“Particularly if [children] develop shortness of breath or start to feel that it’s difficult to breathe, those would be the warning signs that you actually need to seek medical care, and again, you would first call your physician or your urgent care. You wouldn’t just go directly there. They would give you instructions about how to come to the office safely so you don’t expose other people,” DeBiasi said.

A more urgent response would be needed for a child struggling to breathe.

“If you have someone who has clear respiratory distress — they can’t breathe, their lips look blue — if they’re a smaller child they’re unable to eat or drink — those are signs that that’s more of an emergent problem and you might want to actually call 911 in that situation,” DeBiasi said.

Check here for the latest WTOP coronavirus coverage.

WTOP’s Dick Uliano contributed to this report.

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