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About novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause illness in humans, and others cause illness in animals, such as bats, camels, and civets. Human coronaviruses generally cause mild illness, such as the common cold.

Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve to infect and spread among humans, causing severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which emerged in 2012.

What is the COVID-19 virus?

COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. It first started in Hubei Province, China, where it has caused a large and ongoing outbreak. It has since spread more widely in China. Smaller numbers of cases have been identified in several other countries, mostly related to travellers from China. The COVID-19 virus is closely related to SARS coronavirus and in the same family as MERS coronavirus.

There is much more to learn about how COVID-19 is spread, its severity, and other features associated with the  virus; epidemiological and clinical investigations are ongoing.

Outbreaks of a novel (new) coronavirus infection among people are always a public health concern. The situation is evolving rapidly.

How is the virus spread? Can I catch it?

Coronavirus experts think that it’s likely that COVID-19 probably originated in bats in China and then spread to another animal species (which is unknown), and then spread to humans who were in close contact with those animals. It is thought that the virus is adapted to humans and that most spread is from person to person.

Human coronavirus strains are usually spread from an infected person to other people close to that person through contaminated droplets spread by coughing or sneezing, or by contact with contaminated hands, surfaces or objects.

COVID-19 coronaviruses do not survive very long on surfaces and they are killed by common household disinfectants. This also means that there is negligible risk of this virus being present on imported packages.

The best way to protect yourself from COVID-19 and other respiratory infections is to practice good hygiene by:

  • making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rubfor at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub
  • cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow
  • avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.

Can COVID-19 be transmitted during the incubation period (that is, before people develop symptoms)?

The large majority of cases appear to be spread from people who have already developed symptoms. There is preliminary evidence that a very small number of people may have been infectious before their symptoms developed, but this remains unclear. More information about this new virus is needed in order to understand when a person becomes infectious.

What are the symptoms?

Patients may have fever, cough, runny nose, shortness of breath and other symptoms.

In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia with severe acute respiratory distress.

I have symptoms. What should I do?

If you have travelled to or transited through mainland China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan) in the 14 days before your symptoms started, and you have a fever and/or respiratory symptoms, please call your doctor, or your local Emergency Department or Healthdirect on 1800 022 222. Tell the person when you call that you have been in mainland China.

What if I don’t have Medicare?

To support the NSW response to COVID-19, people will not be charged out of pocket expenses who are:

  • not eligible for Medicare, and
  • presenting to NSW Health facilities for COVID-19 assessment.

Most people that are not eligible for Medicare will have health or travel insurance. For those that do not have adequate insurance coverage, NSW Health will cover these costs.

These arrangements have been put in place to ensure payment issues are not a barrier for people from overseas with respiratory symptoms seeking early medical advice.

How is it diagnosed?

Infection with COVID-19 is diagnosed by finding evidence of the virus in respiratory samples such as swabs from the throat or fluid from the lungs. Testing for COVID-19 is done in public health laboratories.

What should I do if I come into contact with a person with COVID-19?

If you have been identified as a contact of a person with confirmed COVID-19 infection in Australia, the local public health unit will contact you with advice. This advice will include that you need to isolate yourself at home for 14 days after contact with the infected person, and to monitor your health and report any symptoms.

Person to person spread of coronaviruses generally occurs between people who are close contacts with one another. A close contact is someone who has been face to face for at least 15 minutes, or been in the same closed space for at least 2 hours, with a person that was infectious. Close contacts of people with confirmed COVID-19 will be closely monitored by public health units for the development of any symptoms, and should call their public health unit to report any symptoms.

If your contact with the person was less than this, there is a much smaller risk of you being infected. However, as a precaution you must still monitor your health until 14 days after you were last exposed to the infectious person. If you develop symptoms including a fever and/or respiratory signs, please call ahead to talk to a doctor or call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222. Tell your doctor that you have been in contact with someone with COVID-19. The doctor may tell you to attend your nearest emergency department, if so call ahead before attending.

Practice simple hygiene by:

  • making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub
  • cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow
  • avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.

Who is at risk?

People who have visited mainland China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan), or who have had contact with an infected person, in the previous 14 days may be at risk of catching the disease. People with underlying illnesses that make them more vulnerable to respiratory disease, including those with diabetes, chronic lung disease, kidney failure, people with suppressed immune systems and the elderly may be at a higher risk of serious disease.

People who have a suppressed immune system should protect themselves in the same way they would against any respiratory infection. This includes making sure to clean your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, or an alcohol-based hand rub. You should cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow, and avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.

You should avoid contact with anyone that has a respiratory illness, and discuss any concerns you have with your usual medical treating team.

How is it prevented?

It’s likely that general prevention measures used for other respiratory infections will also prevent infection with COVID-19.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends measures to reduce the general risk of acute respiratory infections while travelling in or from affected areas by:

  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections;
  • frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment;
  • avoiding close contact with live or dead farm or wild animals;
  • people with symptoms of acute respiratory infection should practice cough etiquette (keep away from other people, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds).

Travellers to China should not visit live bird and animal markets, including ‘wet’ markets. There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infections.

Is there a cure or vaccine?

Currently there are no available vaccines that protect against coronaviruses.

There is no specific treatment for COVID-19. Early diagnosis and general supportive care are important. Most of the time, symptoms will resolve on their own. People who have serious disease with complications can be cared for in hospital.

Has my doctor been informed?

Health workers in NSW public hospital emergency departments as well as community-based general practitioners have already been issued advice on symptoms and actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through careful infection control measures.

What if I am unable to speak to my doctor?

If you are after medical advice and your general practitioner is not able to speak with you, you can call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222. They will be able to discuss your symptoms and travel history with you, to help decide if COVID-19 testing is recommended.

How do I get tested for COVID-19?

Testing can be carried out by your GP or at an emergency department.

If you have been in or transited through mainland China (excluding Hong Kong , Macau and Taiwan) in the last 14 days and develop a fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath, contact your GP or your nearest emergency department. It is important to phone ahead so that the practice or emergency department can make appropriate preparations and protect others.

Who can order a test for COVID-19?

Testing can be ordered in emergency departments or by your general practitioner.

Are people in NSW at risk?

Currently cases are mainly occurring in mainland China with relatively smaller numbers in other countries. In NSW, all confirmed cases were infected with COVID-19 whilst in China.

NSW Health has developed and exercised a range of procedures for case finding, diagnosis, and contact tracing for high consequence infectious diseases (such as pandemic influenza, SARS, MERS, and emerging infections) should they occur in NSW. These procedures are being used to identify contacts of any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in NSW.

Should I avoid Sydney’s Chinatown or shopping centres and suburbs with high Chinese-Australian populations?

No, you do not need to avoid such areas. People who have not been in mainland China in the past 14 days are not at risk of COVID-19 infection. People who have been in or transited through mainland China in the past 14 days have been asked to isolate themselves at home and not attend public places.

You should avoid socialising with any person who has been in or transited through mainland China for 14 days from when they departed. This includes not visiting people who are in home isolation unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

What arrangements are in place for checking people at airports?

The Australian Government has put in place protective measures at all international ports. For the most recent advice from the Australian Government, please visit Department of Health - Coronavirus (COVID-19).

What arrangements are in place for checking people who arrive at sea ports?

For each cruise ship arriving into NSW from overseas, a NSW Health expert panel conducts a risk assessment based on the ports visited, whether passengers and crew have a risk of exposure to COVID-19, whether the ship’s doctor has identified a respiratory outbreak on board, and the results of test results done on board the ship.

Following this risk assessment, further assessment may be done when the ship docks, including checking people with fever and respiratory symptoms or who have risk of exposure to COVID-19, and testing them for respiratory infections, including COVID-19. As there is an incubation period (before symptoms develop and tests are positive) for all infections including COVID-19, screening people for disease is not a failsafe, and is only one piece of the assessment.

Cruise ships have large number of passengers (often thousands), many of whom are older and have chronic medical conditions. Respiratory infections (unrelated to COVID-19) among passengers and crew are common on cruise ships. Cruise ships are responsible for, and have policies to prevent and manage outbreaks of disease on board.

Australians on cruise ships

There are a small number of cruise ships affected by COVID-19.

If you are concerned about someone on one of the Diamond Princess or Westerdam cruise ships, please call the DFAT consular emergency line.

For more information see the Australian Department of Health novel coronavirus website

What is the public health response to COVID-19 cases?

Infection with COVID-19 is a notifiable condition under the NSW Public Health Act 2010, so doctors and pathology laboratories are required to notify NSW Health of all people suspected or confirmed to have the infection.

Public health unit staff will investigate all cases to find out how the infection occurred, identify other people at risk of infection, implement control measures and provide other advice.

Protecting against COVID-19

How can I protect myself / my family?

The best way to protect yourself is the same as you would against any respiratory infection. Practice good hygiene by:

  • making sure to clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub
  • cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow
  • avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms.

Make sure you stay home if you are sick.

Do face masks protect against COVID-19? Which face masks?

Face masks are not recommended for the general population.

People who have symptoms and might be infected with COVID-19 are required to stay in isolation at home and should wear a surgical face mask when in the same room as another person and when seeking medical advice to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to anyone else.

Health care workers who are caring for patients with suspected COVID-19 should use appropriate personal protective equipment to protect themselves against COVID-19. For more information refer to Clinical Excellence Commission - Novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Are there enough face masks in NSW?

Additional supplies of face masks are being distributed for specific health workers by NSW Health and the Australian Government to meet current demand. NSW Health will continue to monitor supplies of face masks in NSW.

How is hospital equipment and furniture being cleaned to protect against COVID-19?

Hospitals ensure surfaces are cleaned and disinfected after each suspected case, as are ambulances. There is an Infection Prevention and Control Practice Handbook that outlines the appropriate steps for cleaning a room to ensure there are no viruses remaining. Staff also wear protective gear when cleaning to protect themselves and limit any spread of infection.

Is it safe for me to go to a hospital where a COVID-19 case is?

NSW Health works with its hospitals to maintain high infection control standards. NSW hospitals and clinicians are well trained in caring for people with infectious diseases, and in preventing their transmission to other patients.

How do we know the people who have had COVID-19 are no longer infectious?

People with confirmed COVID-19 infection stay in isolation under the care of medical specialists until they are no longer experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Before they are released from isolation, they have tests to see if they still have COVID-19 and the specialist care team assesses they are no longer infectious. Once they are discharged they have a follow up assessment by the medical team to make sure they remain well.

Work, university, school and travel arrangements

I have a holiday / work trip. Should I cancel my trip?

The Australian Government provides up-to-date information and advice for safe travel overseas. If you are heading overseas to destinations which may have been affected, check the advice on Smart Traveller.

Can my child attend school?

Any student or staff member who over the last 14 days has visited mainland China is excluded from school and should not return to school or child care services for a period of 14 days after leaving China, as the COVID-19 incubation period can be as long as two weeks.

Staff and students who have been identified as close contacts of a person diagnosed with COVID-19 during their infectious period must also self-isolate at home, and should not attend school or childcare settings until 14 days after their last contact with the infected person.

Do I need a medical certificate clearing me for work, school university or other settings?

No. If you do not have any symptoms there is no testing that can be done to predict whether or not you will become unwell. It is not possible to issue a ‘medical clearance certificate’.

Once 14 days have passed since you left mainland China, you have passed the time in which you would become sick if you were exposed to COVID-19 when you were in China. If you are still completely well 14 days after you left China then you will not get COVID-19 from your time in China.

Do I need to isolate myself if I have returned from holiday in China?

If you have been in mainland China, departed from, or transited through mainland China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan), in the last 14 days you should stay at home and isolate yourself for 14 days after you left China. You should watch out for symptoms.

If you develop a fever, a cough, sore throat or shortness of breath within 14 days of travel to an affected area, you should call your GP, emergency department or call the Healthdirect 1800 022 222 and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

It is important to phone ahead so that the practice or emergency department can make appropriate preparations and protect others.

When seeking medical care wear a surgical mask (if available) otherwise ask for one when you arrive.

Do people returning from Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore or Japan need to be tested or isolated before returning to work?

If you do not have any symptoms (such as fever, cough, sore throat, or shortness of breath) you do not need to be tested or excluded from work.

If you have symptoms, you should call your GP, emergency department or call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222 and seek medical attention as soon as possible. If your doctor recommends you are tested for COVID-19, you should self-isolate and exclude yourself from work until your test result is available.

Home isolation

Do I need to be separate from other people in my home if I am isolating?

Yes. If you are sharing your home with others, you should stay in a different room from other people or be separated as much as possible. Wear a surgical mask when you are in the same room as another person, and when seeking medical care. Use a separate bathroom, if available.If you are sharing your home with others, you should stay in a different room from other people or be separated as much as possible. Wear a surgical mask when you are in the same room as another person, and when seeking medical care. Use a separate bathroom, if available.

Make sure that you do not share a room with people who are at risk of severe disease, such as elderly people and those who have heart, lung or kidney conditions, and diabetes.

Visitors who do not have an essential need to be in the home should not visit while you are isolating.

More information about home isolation is available for:

Someone in my household recently returned from China and is self-isolating. I did not travel to China or have contact with anyone infected with COVID-19. Do I need to self-isolate too?

Other members of the household are not required to be isolated unless they have also:

  • been in or transited through mainland China (excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) in the last 14 days
  • been a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case.

How can I access groceries and medicines while in home isolation?

Ask your family, friends or other members of the household to pick up your groceries and medicines for you. If this is not possible, you can order groceries and medicines (including prescription medicines) online or by telephone.

Where can I find more information?

This page is also available in Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.

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Page Updated: Friday 21 February 2020
Contact page owner: Health Protection NSW