COVID-19 Pandemic: What You Need to Know to Stay Safe and Reduce Your Risk

by Amelia BaffaPediatric Adolescent Young Adult Psychiatric ProviderMarch 31, 2020View more posts from Amelia Baffa

The Enemy

COVID-19 is an invisible enemy, its cunning, and an expert in adaption. Its only weakness is that it needs a surface to live on or a host to live in. Most of us are well aware of how devastating this virus can be as evidenced by the death rates in countries ahead of us on the curve such as China, Italy, and Spain. The good news is we still have time to flatten the curve if we pay attention to the lessons they have learned and follow the recommendations, from the Center of Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and our state and local health departments. So please let’s do our part and learn more about how we can protect and care for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors, our communities, and our world while we still have the chance.

What’s the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) an epidemic is a rise in the number of cases of a disease beyond what is normally expected in a specific geographical area. Let’s take the flu for example, some areas may have a sudden spike in flu cases, when the flu is prevalent.  However the increase in cases doesn’t spread among all countries and continents. A pandemic is when a disease spreads across many countries and continents and affects a large number of people. In a pandemic, you assume that everyone has potential to be exposed.

Where are we on the timeline continuum of COVID-19 in the United States?

We are in the early stages of a COVID-19 global pandemic in the US. To date New York State has been the hardest hit with over 60% of all cases in the US being located there. California and Washington are close behind and are considered to be in a state of emergency, while other states are requiring additional help from the National Guard, and many others are only a week or two away from experiencing their first series of surges.

What’s a surge?

A surge is when hospitals are expecting large numbers of people in the community that come to them for emergency care. How well the hospitals and medical communities are prepared to survive a hazard impact while maintaining services and recover operations is called disaster surge preparedness. Hospitals are preparing for multiple levels of COVID-19 related surges. This is very similar to what we are seeing in other countries, large numbers of individuals experiencing serious respiratory distress presenting at hospitals and emergency rooms requiring an intense level of care and in many cases respiratory support and even mechanical ventilation (breathing machine).

What is the Coronavirus?

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a novel (newly) discovered coronavirus.

Who is at risk?

Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and cancer survivors are more likely to develop serious illness.

Will everyone who gets it get seriously ill?

No, most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. In a recent article published in The New York Times it was reported that 40% of the cases of COVID-19 in the US were people ages 20-54. The risk of dying from it is worse in the elderly population, but a word of caution, do not think that because you are young that you cannot get it and become seriously ill. The numbers don’t lie, you are susceptible, and if you are a cancer patient or survivor you should take extra precaution.

How does it spread?

The COVID19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes, the droplets travel about 6 feet. So, it’s important that you also practice respiratory etiquette (for example, coughing into a flexed elbow). If any infected droplet comes in contact with your eyes, nose, or mouth it can cause you to become infected. COVID-19 virus droplets like to live on surfaces where they land, such as on countertops, remotes, door handles. The droplets can be transferred to other surfaces, such as door knobs, light switches, phones, keyboards, water faucets, gas pump handles, and other items.

How can I protect myself and others from getting infected?

Practice social (physical) distancing (like your life depends on it):

  • Keep 6 feet of distance between you and other people, if at all possible
  • Avoid social gatherings and crowds of people
  • Avoid mass transit (such as buses and subways)
  • Stay at home as much as possible, and stay away from anyone who is sick

Practice good hygiene (like your life depends on it):

  • Wash your hands very frequently – at least once an hour when you are awake – with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time. This includes while you are at home. Wash your hands: before and after you prepare your meals, before and after you eat, after using the restroom, if you must touch your face or blow your nose wash your hands. I think you get the idea, wash your hands before and after you make contact with yourself, others, or touch a surface or object.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Some people have adopted the practice of keeping their hands clasped in front of them when they are not using them to stop themselves from touching their face.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as phones, keyboards, doorknobs, light switches, and countertops using antibacterial wipes or household cleaners at least once a day.
  • Do not shake hands or hug other people
  • Do not share household items (such as cups and towels) with others

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The most common symptoms are:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Symptoms may also include:

  • Tiredness
  • Aches
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhea

When should I seek emergency medical attention?

If you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately. Emergency warning signs include*:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

*This list is not all inclusive. Please consult your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning.

What should I do if I am not feeling well and think that I may have COVID-19?

  • Call ahead for medical advice before visiting your health care provider or hospital, so that you can determine what next steps are needed
  • If you need help specific to when you should seek medical care you can use the CDC chatbot ( her name is Clara) she is the Coronavirus Self-Checker to help you make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care. It is not intended to diagnosis or treat disease or other conditions, including COVID-19.  *See the resource section.
  • Be sure to tell your health care provider that you are a cancer survivor
  • If you have chronic health conditions (for example, heart or lung problems), be sure to tell your health care provider
  • If you have been told that the cancer treatment you received places you at high risk for lung or heart problems (such as from chest radiation or certain chemotherapies), be sure to tell your health care provider
  • Bring your cancer treatment summary with you if you are told to go to the clinic or hospital

I be tested for COVID-19?

  • Yes, there are laboratory tests available that can identify the virus that causes COVID-19 in respiratory specimens. These tests are Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase (RT)-PCR Diagnostic Panels,that can provide results in 4 to 6 hours. It is up to the discretion of state and local health departments and or individual clinicians who should be tested.If you have symptoms of COVID-19 and want to get tested, try calling your state or local health department or your medical provider. While supplies of these tests are increasing, it may still be difficult to find a place to get tested.  Due to the limited supply of tests they are often being reserved for healthcare workers who had direct exposure and those who are considered high-risk with severe symptoms.

How long will COVID-19 last?

  • CDC expects that widespread transmission of COVID-19in the United States will occur. The CDC estimates that in the coming months most of the U.S. population will be exposed to this virus. On a global level it’s been estimated that at least 70% of the world’s population will have been exposed. This means we have to stay vigilant and continue to practice all of the protective measures the CDC recommends to keep ourselves and others safe.

Is there anything else I can do?

  • Practice self-care
  • COVID-19 information continues to change daily. Stay current. Be informed.
  • Stay current on a global, national, regional, and local level. Please see the resource links for up to date information
  • Please talk to your survivorship care team about any questions or worries you may have during this time

Is there a cure or vaccine available?

  • At this time, there are no specific vaccines or treatments for COVID-19. However, there are many ongoing clinical trials evaluating potential treatments.
  • For now the treatment is largely “supportive” care.


COVID-19 Resources

The World Health Organization provides a global overview of the coronavirus pandemic including information on safety, situation updates, and research guidance.

This site contains information about health, safety, and prevention on a national level.

For screening purposes you can use the CDCs COVI19 self- checker. This link also contains information on COVId-19 testing and who should get tested.

Children’s Oncology Group site has information for parents of children with cancer and for childhood cancer survivors on COVID-19.

Note: These sites update their information frequently you’ll most likely want to subscribe to them to receive daily updates. Another good place to get information is your local TV news networks, even if you ditched your cable provider you can sign up and access updates on your mobile phone.  Many of the streaming devices such as Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV Stick have their own news channels which you can access for free.

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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