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(Updated March 30, 2020)

Some people have described the coronavirus as a flu-like virus. So why is everyone so worried?

This is not the flu. It’s far more deadly. For older people and for younger people. Epidemiologists point to preliminary data from China showing it’s 10 times deadlier than the flu. For a lot of people, particularly those who are older or anyone with asthma or other health conditions, this virus is very dangerous. And it can be deadly.

In Rhode Island, the number of COVID-19 cases are rising but still nowhere near as quickly as in New York or even Massachusetts. Isn’t that reassuring?

Not exactly, because a lot more people than we know of right now have probably already contracted the virus and don’t know it. Rhode Island has one state lab that’s been able to do the testing, and initially we were only able to test about 45 people a day.  Testing has been ramping up, but it will take before the testing results more accurately reflect the state's infection rate. Rhode Island is currently testing about 500 people a day. South Korea is considered a success story in controlling the virus -- and they’ve been testing about 10,000 people a day. South Korea has a population of about 52 million. Rhode Island is a state of about one million people.  U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in mid-March, when the state was testing fewer than 100 people a day, that if Rhode Island had testing at the levels that South Korea was, “we should be doing 200 tests a day.” So the state is trying to catch up.

Why haven’t more people in Rhode Island been tested for the coronavirus? 

Rhode Island, like the rest of the country, still doesn’t have enough testing supplies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or private suppliers to do do broader screening to identify where the disease is spreading. The state Health Department laboratory doesn't have the capacity to process that level of testing so state health officials have been essentially rationing testing to people at high risk of infection until they receive the testing supplies needed to expand testing using private labs. The CDC's guidelines on testing also have been evolving. Until mid-March, the CDC advised only people with symptoms who have recently traveled abroad to places where they had travel alerts, or had been in close contact with someone with COVID-19. 

Will Rhode Island start testing more people?

Yes. Governor Gina M. Raimondo said Monday (3/30) that her goal is to double the number of people being tested, to 1,000 people a day by the middle of this week. That means expanding testing beyond those at highest risk of fueling the virus’ spread, such as hospitalized patients and people in nursing homes and congregant settings. Health care workers, including emergency medical services (EMS) workers, also will begin being tested. New Drive-through testing sites operated by the Army National Guard are opening March 31st at the University of Rhode Island, the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. If you think you need to be tested, call your primary care provider to get an appointment. If you don’t have a primary care provider, all an urgent care center or, if you can’t get through, call the RIDOH hotline. (Nobody will be tested without an appointment.)

So if I’m healthy and I'm hanging out with friends who are also healthy, what’s the harm?  Why are we being told to keep a distance?

It’s generally true that people who don’t have any symptoms and aren’t in quarantine (because they’ve been exposed to other potentially infected patients) are at low-risk for COVID-19. But health professionals say they’re worried about people who may have very mild symptoms may be infected. And those people can transmit the virus to other people, who could become much sicker. That’s why everyone is being asked to avoid crowds and practice what’s called social distancing, which includes keeping a six-foot distance from other people. 

Can someone infected with the coronavirus have no symptoms and spread it?

Lifespan’s Chief of Infection Control, Dr. Leonard A. Mermel, said it's possible for someone with mild symptoms to transmit the virus to others. But, he said, “we don't believe that's the major driver of what's going on around the world in terms of the large number of cases.”

What should I do if I’m having symptoms that sound like the coronavirus?

Call your doctor. If you don’t have a primary care doctor, call an urgent care.  And stay home. Do not go to a doctor’s office, clinic or a hospital without calling ahead. If you can’t reach a medical professional, call the state Health Department’s COVID-19 Hotline at (401)222-8022. (After hours call 211.) For many people who get COVID-19, they’ll have mild upper respiratory symptoms and will be able to recover at home and self-isolate. So even if they test positive, that won’t affect their treatment or their recovery. 

For people who are sick but haven't tested for COVID-19, how long are they supposed to stay home and self-isolate?

State health officials say you should isolate yourself until you’ve been fever-free without any fever-reducing medications for at least 72 hours -- that’s three full days. That means no fever without any ibuprofen or other fever-reducing medications. And after other symptoms like cough and shortness of breath have improved. You want at least seven days to have passed since your symptoms first appeared. (For more information see the World Health Organization guidelines.)

-Lynn Arditi, health reporter,