WHAT TO DO:
Experts advise residents what to do if they’re showing symptoms.
You wake up with a sore, scratchy throat and begin coughing and sneezing.
It’s probably a run-ofthe-mill cold, or it could be the beginning of a bout of seasonal flu. But with recent cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, surfacing in Illinois, some people are bound to wonder: Could this be the coronavirus?
More than 100,000 infections have been reported worldwide, with substantial outbreaks in China, Italy, Iran, Japan and South Korea. More than 3,300 people have died.
Six people have tested positive for the new coronavirus in Illinois, the most recent a CPS employee who had been on a cruise ship. Illinois is one of at least 21 states that have reported confirmed cases of coronavirus. At least 15 people in the United States have died from the disease as of March 6, 14 of them in Washington state.
Here’s what experts advise for Illinoisans who fear they are showing signs of coronavirus.
If you are experiencing minor symptoms, don’t just show up at a clinic, doctors say.
“They should not see their doctor immediately,” said Michael Ison, a professor of infectious diseases and organ transplantation at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. “They should call their doctor first.”
The primary care doctor will go over the patient’s symptoms by phone and decide what to do next. If the symptoms are minor, the doctor’s advice will likely be to stay home to avoid spreading any type of virus and call back if the symptoms get worse, Ison said.
Experts still say the risk to average Chicagoans is low if they haven’t had known contact with an infected person or traveled to an area with an active outbreak.
The new cornonavirus can cause a more severe illness than a typical cold, but it initially manifests with many of the same symptoms, experts say. So doctors are unlikely to ask for COVID-19 testing if someone is only presenting with cold and flu symptoms and doesn’t have any other reason to suspect they may have it.
“It is hard to tell right now,” said Susan Bleasdale, an infectious disease physician at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. “We’re still in the middle of the flu season.”
The state has a hotline people can call with questions or to report suspected cases at 800-889-3931. They can call the Office of Consumer Health Insurance at 877-527-9431 about their health insurance coverage.
Getting the test
After speaking with a patient, primary care doctors will decide whether to coordinate with public health officials to test for COVID-19.
They will consider factors such as the severity of the symptoms, recent travel history and contact with people suspected to be infected.
“The testing right now is prioritized for people who need hospitalizing for severe pneumonia,” Bleasdale said.
Patients will also likely be tested if they are showing signs of a respiratory illness and have traveled to certain areas such as China or Italy, or have had contact with an infected person.
Everyone else will probably be told to stay home until their symptoms subside, doctors say.
Patients who will be tested for the virus will get a nasal swab, experts say. Testing can only be done by public health officials, so it is paid for by the government. Doctors cannot order the test without coordinating with the Illinois Department of Health, and it is not billed to insurance, Ison said.
In Illinois, tests are sent to one of three state-run labs in Chicago, Springfield or Carbondale, according to state health officials. If there is a presumptive positive result, specimens are sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation.
Public health officials here are also testing a random sample of negative seasonal flu tests for coronavirus to learn if and how COVID-19 is circulating here.
What happens next?
If a patient is tested for the new coronavirus, state and local health departments will take action to mitigate the public health threat.
Health officials will work with the patient to map out recent activity, try to identify people the patient has had contact with and, if necessary, test those people for COVID-19, Bleasdale said.
Patients may isolate themselves at home if they aren’t experiencing severe symptoms. They may be hospitalized if the symptoms are severe, she said.
“They would be guided by the Department of Public Health and health care providers,” Bleasdale said.
As of Friday, about 220 people in Illinois had been tested for the virus. Of those, 180 have received negative results, and 35 were still pending.
Doctors advise people to take regular precautions against viruses of all kinds, including frequently washing your hands, staying home from work or school when sick and covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing.