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NEW VISITOR POLICY in effect as of Friday, March 27
See all Novel Coronavirus Information for Penn Medicine Patients

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an infection caused by a novel coronavirus that leads to a respiratory illness that can be spread from person to person. COVID-19 has spread globally, including to the United States. 

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms of this virus are very similar to other seasonal respiratory ailments like colds and influenza, or “the flu.” They can include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.

Most patients with COVID-19 have only mild flu-like and respiratory symptoms which can be managed at home.  However, some patients may develop severe pneumonia and breathing problems that require hospitalization. 

Am I at risk for COVID-19?

At this time, the COVID-19 virus is widespread in many communities within the United States, and it is a good idea to continue to practice social distancing (or other measures as recommended by your local or national governments) to protect yourself and your family from coming into contact with the virus. You may be particularly at risk for getting the virus if you have traveled to an area with widespread transmission within the last 14 days or live in an area of the country with a particularly high number of cases.

You should discuss with your primary care doctor if you are concerned about any particular exposures to people with known COVID-19 infection, or if you have symptoms such as fever and cough or shortness of breath.

How is COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 is spread from person to person in a similar fashion as influenza and other respiratory viruses. 

You can get the virus from inhaling particles sprayed into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, especially if you are within 6 feet of an infected person. 

You can also get the virus from touching a surface that an infected person coughed or sneezed on and then transferring the virus to your body by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. 

How do I protect myself from COVID-19 infection?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus through the following:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Practice “social distancing:” Avoid gatherings with large numbers of people, potentially including weddings, concerts, memorial services, Bar Mitzvahs, etc.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch objects and surfaces (counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets and bedside tables) using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • 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 available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. 
  • Get a flu shot if you have not received one yet this year—it reduces risk of influenza and avoids confusion with COVID-19 if you become sick with fever and cough. 
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from COVID-19.

In addition, to help prevent the spread of the disease to others and prepare for possible infection:

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue (and then dispose of this) or your elbow. 
  • Face masks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 when they are around other people. The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from COVID-19. 
  • Contact your health care provider to ask about getting an extra supply of your regular prescription medicines to have on hand if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in the community and you need to stay home for a long period of time.
  • Be sure you have over-the-counter medicines and supplies (tissues, etc.) to treat fever and other symptoms. Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.
  • Have enough household items and groceries on hand so that you will be prepared to stay at home for a period of time.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

A swab can be taken and tested for evidence of the virus in the back of the nose or throat in people who have concerning symptoms and exposure. Penn Medicine has in-house and send-out testing for patients suspected of COVID-19 infection. Your healthcare provider will determine whether testing is appropriate for you based on your symptoms and exposure history. 

What should I do if I become sick (cough, fever)?

Stay home and call your healthcare provider to discuss further. They will help decide if you need further evaluation or testing. You can also call Penn Medicine's toll-free coronavirus hotline at 833-983-1350.

If you are not sick enough to be hospitalized, you can recover at home and avoid exposing or infecting others. 

Call 911 if you develop these signs:

  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Lasting pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or failure to stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face

What is the prognosis for people who get COVID-19?

Importantly, MOST people with COVID-19 do well and recover fully within a week or two of their illness. Even though there are no specific treatments or vaccines for the COVID-19 virus at this time, most people are cured by their own immune system and recover fully. Just like with influenza (“the flu”), it may take some time to feel completely back to normal. 

Unlike the flu which can cause severe disease in children, COVID-19 in children appears to be very mild. 

Older adults (especially over age 60) and those with chronic medical conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease) are at highest risk for getting pneumonia and ending up in the hospital from COVID-19. 

It is not known if pregnant women are at higher risk of problems from COVID -19.

You may also be at higher risk for more severe disease from COVID-19 if you have a weak immune system (from steroids, cancer drugs, HIV, organ or bone marrow transplants). 

How is COVID-19 treated?

For those who are very sick (most often due to low oxygen levels or lung damage from pneumonia), hospitalization is required. In the hospital, patients receive oxygen and other treatments to help their breathing as well as supportive care and very close monitoring. 

Most people who are infected do not get low oxygen levels and are able to stay home and monitor themselves for improvement or worsening. Over-the-counter medicines can be used to manage symptoms. Infected persons can often have telephone check-ins with health providers for close monitoring. 

If I have been around someone who I now know is infected with COVID-19, how do I protect myself?

The CDC has excellent advice to help prevent household members from getting infection if someone in the home has COVID-19. These include sleeping in separate rooms and using separate bathrooms if possible, as well as frequent hand-washing and staying more than 6 feet away from the infected person. 

Let your doctor know right away if you are aware of having contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. They can determine if you need testing and provide more education on how to prevent further risk of infection to you and to prevent spread of infection to others. 

I have an upcoming doctors’ appointment. Is it safe for me to go?

Our first priority is always the safety of our patients. In an effort to protect our patients and staff, and to prioritize the needs of those who may require immediate care, we will be rescheduling some patient appointments and procedures over the next two weeks. We will contact you directly if your outpatient visit, procedure, or surgery is postponed until a later date.

We will also be working to move some patients to virtual visits and home care, as appropriate. During this time, all Penn Medicine facilities will remain open in order to care for patients who require in-person visits and time sensitive care. Patients who have specific concerns about their health or personal situation should contact their physicians for more guidance.

If you have respiratory or flu symptoms, please call your doctor’s office ahead of time. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, they may provide special instructions or – if appropriate – connect you with Penn Medicine's 24/7 online care practice, Penn Medicine OnDemand, for a virtual visit.

What does the coronavirus mean for me if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?

If you’re pregnant, you may be concerned about how the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) can affect the health of you and your baby. We put together information about how to protect yourself while pregnant, the risks of COVID-19 to pregnant women and their babies, whether to breastfeed if you have been infected with the virus, and more.

Is it safe to travel?

Because of widespread community COVID-19 illness in some places, the CDC recommends Americans avoid all travel to Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, most of Europe, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. 

Because of increasing transmission of COVID-19, the CDC recommends against non-essential travel to other places. 

If you must travel, take the following routine precautions:

  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Clean your hands often by washing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • It is extra important to clean hands after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

Is it safe to go on a cruise?

Cruises put large numbers of people, often from countries around the world, in frequent and close contact with each other. Sustained community spread of COVID-19 has been associated with several recent cruise events. In addition, those traveling by ship may be impacted by travel restrictions affecting their itineraries or ability to disembark, or may be subject to quarantine procedures implemented by the local authorities.

The CDC has implemented a No Sail Order for cruise ships effective March 14, 2020 lasting for the next 30 days.

I am a Penn Medicine employee. What resources are available to support me through COVID-19?

We recognize the uncertainty and challenges that the evolving COVID-19 pandemic poses to you, your loved ones, and your work. Thank you for your continued service to ensure the health and safety of all our patients, their families, and our staff.

The Workforce Wellness Committee has put a number of resources in place to support you during this critical time. You can find information at PennMedicineTogether,* our wellness home for life on the front lines of COVID-19. We frequently add additional information as our response and services continue to evolve, so check back daily for more details.

*Please note, this link can only be viewed within the UPHS firewall on a workplace desktop or via VPN to uphold information security.

More questions? Call the hotline.

If you have any additional questions or need more information, please call Penn Medicine’s Hotline for the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 disease at 833-983-1350.

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