COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a new coronavirus. Infectious diseases spread from person-to-person; they’re illnesses that you can “catch.”
To survive, viruses sneak into the cells of hosts (in this case, people) to reproduce. Once inside, they tend to make their hosts do things (cough, sneeze, etc.) to infect others. The new virus that causes COVID-19 primarily spreads when a sick person coughs or sneezes tiny, invisible, virus-filled droplets that someone else inhales. Scientists call this “droplet transmission.” Those droplets might also land on a nearby surface. If another person touches this surface, and then touches their mouth, nose, or eye, they could become sick with COVID-19.
So what’s the solution? We need to stay out of range of each other’s coughs and sneezes, that is, at least 6 feet apart. The virus might also spread when we touch things that a sick person has very recently touched, coughed on, or sneezed on. So we must either clean surfaces that lots of people touch (like the door handle at the post office), or avoid these high-touch surfaces altogether.
Doctors are still looking into other ways that people might potentially catch COVID-19. For example, we’re not sure yet if mothers can pass the virus to their unborn baby or whether the virus can be contracted through contact with an infected person’s stool. Some scientists have also suggested that the virus might be airborne. (Droplet transmission refers to larger particles in the air, while airborne transmission refers to much smaller particles in the air.)
These questions remain unanswered, but the current recommendations for spatial distancing, hand-washing, and keeping high-touch surfaces clean are sound advice to keep you and your family safe.
Last updated April 2, 2020 10:51am ET
Science review by JAB, GSN