Answers to coronavirus questions

How long does the coronavirus last on surfaces, how does it spread, what are best preventative measures and tips for handwashing are all included with information gathered from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and a recent CNN Global Town Hall on COVID-19.

An illustration depicts the virus sphere with spikes on the outer surface.
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Contributed / CDC

Before the coronavirus dismantled great swaths of public life, sports and entertainment, some were surprised by people who were buying up large quantities of toilet paper wondering what that had to do with a disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long advised people to have supplies to allow them to stay home and away from close contact with others for several weeks in the event of an emergency. The items to have in place include: medications, water, nonperishable food, and of course, essentials like toilet paper.

With the coronavirus taking over the nation's consciousness, the Dispatch compiled a list of questions and answers on the disease, along with tips for protecting yourself and your family.

What is a pandemic?

“Pandemics happen when a new virus emerges to infect people and can spread between people sustainably,” the CDC notes on its website. “Because there is little to no pre-existing immunity against the new virus, it spreads worldwide. … This is the first pandemic known to be caused by the emergence of a new coronavirus.”


Who is most at risk?

“Older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness,” the CDC reported.

What are the symptoms?

The CDC reports confirmed coronavirus disease cases have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. The World Health Organization lists the most common symptoms of COVID-19 as fever, tiredness and dry cough, adding some patients may have aches, pains nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. Symptoms are described as starting gradually. Some infected people may never feel ill. The vast majority of people, about 80%, recover.

“Around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing,” the WHO reported. “Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.”

There is no vaccine, drug or treatment for COVID-19 to date. But care can help with symptoms, such as difficulty breathing.

“The most effective ways to protect yourself and others against COVID-19 are to frequently clean your hands, cover your cough with the bend of elbow or tissue, and maintain a distance of at least 3 feet from people who are coughing or sneezing,” the WHO reported.

The incubation period for the disease appears to be 1-14 days. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses.

The WHO advised people who were in or who recently visited areas where COVID-19 was spreading to self-isolate by staying home if they had even mild symptoms like a headache, low-grade fever, and slight runny nose, adding it is essential for those who are self-isolating to have others bring them supplies to avoid spreading the disease.


This type of advice also comes at a time when there are multiple ways to have both food and supplies delivered to homes from restaurants, grocery stores and retailers, or through drive-up pickup options.

The CDC advises those with emergency warning signs for COVID-19 should get medical attention immediately.

In adults, emergency warning signs includes, but is not limited to:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath,

  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest,

  • New confusion or inability to arouse, and

  • Bluish lips or face.

How does it spread?

“COVID-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks,” the WHO reported. “To protect yourself, clean your hands frequently and thoroughly.”

Those droplets may fall on objects and surfaces around the infected person. Touching those surfaces and then touching one’s face — eyes, nose or mouth — are one of the ways the disease is spread between people. If close to an infected person, the droplets they exhale while talking or breathing, can be inhaled — posing another way the disease is spread.

In the early stages of the disease, people may not feel ill and may develop a mild cough, which can then spread the disease.

Masks are not recommended for people who are not ill. Those who are sick and use a mask to protect others should only wear a disposable face mask once. Health experts across the county have noted those who are not ill or not caring for an ill person are not in need of a mask and may be contributing to a short supply for those who do need to use them.

The WHO notes there is no evidence that the disease is transmitted by pets, although one dog was reported to have been infected in Hong Kong.


How long does it last on surfaces?

In a CNN Global Town Hall, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked how long COVID-19 could last on mail. Fauci said it might be two hours on that type of surface but may not exist there in sufficient amounts to infect someone.

“The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low,” the WHO stated.

The WHO also reported preliminary information suggests the virus may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days, varying for many factors including surface type, temperature and humidity.

Surfaces may be cleaned with a simple disinfectant. The CDC recommends cleaning frequently touched surfaces and objects daily, such as tables, counter tops, light switches, doorknobs, and cabinet handles and using a regular household detergent and water. Tip: If surfaces are dirty, they should be cleaned using a detergent and water prior to disinfection.

Washing and disinfecting common areas, washing hands and avoiding touching one’s face are all widely recommended.

To make a bleach solution, the CDC recommends using 5 tablespoons or a third of a cup of bleach per gallon of water or 4 tablespoons of bleach per quart of water. Make sure alcohol solutions have at least 70% alcohol.

Experts during the CNN Global Town Hall also noted washing clothes in soap and water is enough to disinfect them, but the hamper or basket holding the clothes would also need to be disinfected.

Practice prevention

The list from the CDC includes:


  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Consider staying at home if in a high risk group.

  • Stay home when you are sick, except to get medical care.

  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue.

  • For disinfection, a list of products with Environmental Protection Agency approved emerging viral pathogens claims, maintained by the American Chemistry Council Center for Biocide Chemistries, is available at

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Always wash your hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.

Best practices for hand washing

To wash hands: wet hands with clean running water, then apply soap. Lather hands thoroughly for 20 seconds, including the back of hands, interlacing fingers, including the thumb and under fingernails. After the 20 seconds (Tip: hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice) rinse hands and dry with a clean towel or air dry.

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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