With the novel coronavirus spreading and outbreaks popping up around the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is telling Americans to prepare for an epidemic.
"We expect we will see community spread in this country," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."
So how do you prepare your home and family for an impending outbreak of the virus, known as COVID-19? Here are some tips.
Get the flu shot
If you didn't already get the annual flu vaccine, go get it now. It won't protect you from getting COVID-19, but you're more likely to develop severe pneumonia if you get the flu and coronavirus at the same time, The New York Times reports.
By staying flu-free, you'll also avoid making a trip to the hospital or a doctor's office when health care workers could be overwhelmed during an outbreak.
Stock up on medications
If you take prescription drugs, make sure you have enough to last a few weeks or so, if your insurance company allows it. Check your medicine cabinet to see if you have basics — particularly fever reducers like acetaminophen. You don't want to have to run to the pharmacy when you don't feel well and could be contagious.
And if you have seen any disconcerting headlines about ibuprofen, you need to know the whole story. In a study published in The Lancet, researchers looked at patients with hypertension and diabetes mellitus found that an enzyme boosted by anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen could facilitate and worsen COVID-19 infections. That study was the reason France’s health minister suggested patients rely on acetaminophen and avoid all steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) products. However, other scientists remain skeptical about such a blanket statement.
"There are multiple assumptions that are made with that hypothesis that can’t be made without being tested," Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at Columbia University's Center for Infection and Immunity, told Vox. "To my knowledge there’s no evidence that ibuprofen makes [Covid-19] worse."
Unless you're a health care worker, you don't need to buy a face mask. The CDC doesn't recommend that healthy people wear face masks. If you are sick, you should wear one to keep healthy people from getting infected.
Beef up your pantry
You don't have to buy enough food for months on end, but it's a good idea to have a stock of non-perishables so you can avoid crowds if there's an outbreak. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends that before a pandemic strikes, people store a two-week supply of water and food.
That supply should include the foods you eat when you're sick, Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician with Columbia University Medical Center, suggests to NPR. That might be chicken or vegetable broth and crackers and hydrating drinks like Gatorade. So far, about 80% of COVID-19 cases have been mild with symptoms similar to the cold or flu, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Practice smart hygiene
Health experts advise following the same good health habits you should follow during every cold and flu season.
Wash your hands often and when you do, be sure to scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or more, says the CDC. The WHO says you should wash even longer than that. See the WHO's thorough method in the video above. You can compare the agencies' two techniques for yourself here. If you don't have soap and water handy, then use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. Make sure you use a dollop about the size of a quarter and rub it around all over the front and back of your hands until they are dry.
Cover your cough and sneezes with a tissue or with your elbow, not your hand. Coughing into your hand just leaves germs there that you can transmit to surfaces and other people.
Wipe down surfaces regularly with bleach wipes or alcohol. In the past, research has found that these household cleaners have killed other coronaviruses and some common disinfectant products list that they're effective against human coronavirus on the label. Products that have been proven effective in protecting against other human coronaviruses are thought to be effective against the novel coronavirus, too, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told CNN.
Practice what health experts call 'social distancing.' Keep at least 3 feet (1 meter) from someone who is coughing or sneezing, suggests the WHO. When they cough or sneeze, they are sending out airborne droplets filled with virus, which you can breathe in. Social distancing means maintaining a healthy distance and staying away from public places during high-traffic times.
Check in with the office and schools
Talk to your boss about plans to work from home if there's an outbreak or if you're sick. Some companies may already have a plan in place or might be considering this even before an outbreak if employees have to take mass transit or are often exposed to large groups of people.
Parents might want to contact schools to see if there's a plan in place for online classes. Do you have help for childcare if your child's school or daycare closes? Get a plan in place now with friends or relatives in case that happens.
It's also a good time to come up with a plan for elderly family members or neighbors in case they get sick and need care.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published in February 2020.