New York City has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. As of March 30, the city had recorded over 36,000 cases—more than anyplace else in the nation—and 790 deaths. Officials have projected that the state of New York still needs 30,000 ventilators for critically ill people, with only several thousand in place currently in the healthcare system. Already, hospitals are becoming overwhelmed and the outbreak is not predicted to hit its peak for several more weeks.
New York City isn’t the only community that is reeling from the arrival of COVID-19. More than 144 people have died in Washington State’s King County alone, and another more than 161 people have died across New Jersey and similar counts are now hitting Louisiana, Georgia, and other states.
But there are still many communities around the country where COVID-19 is not yet spreading widely. So what should you do if you’re not in a hot zone for COVID-19?
“Stay home! Even if you think it is not in your area, take serious precautions. Go out when you absolutely have to. Try to do errands once a week instead of a little every day,” Charlotte Baker, an epidemiologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, advised in an email to Popular Science. “Staying home now will help reduce how the outbreak affects your area. It really works but everyone has to do their part.”
As long as people continue to mingle in stores, restaurants, and parks, the number of new cases will continue to rise in all areas, Baker said. Canceling events and keeping your distance from others won’t completely eliminate transmission of COVID-19, but these steps will help prevent huge numbers of people from getting sick all at once and leaving hospitals without enough beds or ventilators for those who are critically ill.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against gatherings of 10 or more people anywhere in the United States. This social distancing practice is crucial because people with COVID-19 can be contagious before they realize they’re sick. It’s best to stay 6 to 10 feet away from people who aren’t in your household when you can. If you’re older than 60 or have other circumstances that make you more likely to get seriously ill if you catch COVID-19, you should limit your contact with other people as much as possible.
Beyond that, try not to touch your face, wash your hands often and thoroughly, and regularly clean surfaces in your home with soap and water or disinfectant wipes or sprays. Have groceries and supplies delivered if you can. Make sure you have extra food and at least a month’s supply of prescription medications in case you become sick or have to self-quarantine for several weeks.
You can also look out for your neighbors by picking up groceries for people who are at higher risk for COVID-19 or by donating blood, which is in short supply because of the pandemic.
However, if you feel unwell, even if you aren’t certain that you are sick you should stay home if at all possible, says Emily Gurley, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Because there are so few diagnostic tests available for COVID-19, it’s not always clear whether somebody has the disease or a different respiratory ailment. When in doubt, Gurley says, assume that you have COVID-19 and keep everybody you live with at home.
It’s also important to have a plan for what you’ll do if you do catch COVID-19. “Do you have someone who could drop off groceries for you? Do you know who would take care of you if you were sick? Is there someone you can count on?” Gurley says. “Thinking through what you would do if you were in that scenario is important as a part of preparedness.”
These steps will be easier for some people to follow than for others. Not everyone has transportation; access to buses, taxis, or delivery services; or money for extra food and medicine. For people in rural areas, grocery stores, pharmacies, and clinics might not be close by.
“We don’t need a pandemic to tell us that there are rural communities that are very underserved when it comes to medical care and access to medical care,” Gurley says. “But the pandemic will expose that even more.”
Communities that have less healthcare infrastructure to begin with will be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. “This means that there will be an overall larger impact on small towns and rural areas as well as underserved populations in more densely populated areas,” Baker said. “We will need to make testing readily available in these communities, increase the number of clinicians, and increase the ability of these areas to access daily necessities.”
Because the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, nobody has immunity to it. It will take longer to reach some areas than others, but eventually Gurley says there’s no reason to think there are communities in the United States that won’t see outbreaks of COVID-19. “The United States isn’t just one place; it’s many places that are connected,” Gurley says. This means that outbreaks will peak at different times in communities across the United States.
Hopefully, Gurley says, we will learn how better to combat COVID-19 in places that are already hot zones and apply these lessons to other parts of the country. “We’re all vulnerable to what’s happening in New York,” she says. “Our fates are linked so it makes sense for us to act like they are.”
COVID-19 moves quickly—in New York City last week, the number of new cases had been doubling every three days. But there’s a lag between when somebody becomes infected and when their case is reported; it takes awhile for people to catch the virus, develop symptoms, seek medical care, get tested for COVID-19, and finally receive a diagnosis.
“By the time people are really hearing about it in their area, it’s everywhere,” Gurley says. “It’s best to take precautions now to limit exposure and also to be ready to stay home.”
Waiting for the novel coronavirus to arrive in your neighborhood and then coping with an outbreak is stressful and frightening. So be gentle with yourself and take whatever steps you can to look after your own mental wellbeing.
“Don’t force yourself to be more productive or beat yourself up for not accomplishing what you feel you would have ordinarily done,” Baker said. “Enjoy time with family, use technology to stay connected with other people, and enjoy the fresh air (6 feet away from others!) This is going to be here for a while—it is a marathon not a sprint.”
Written by Kate Baggaley for Popular Science and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.