Coronavirus questions answered: How long it lasts for us, and for the country

At the start of the week we asked you to send us your coronavirus questions. And you responded, en masse.

On Thursday, we looked at travel and socialising, Friday we covered how the virus works and on Saturday we explored how to do social distancing properly. 

Now we’re answering everything you wanted to know about how long this whole thing will last.

This is a rapidly changing situation and answers are current as of time of publishing.

Monash University Professor of Medicine Paul Komesaroff, who directs the Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society, is answering your questions.

Over to him.

When we get the virus, for how long are we ill? How long should we remain isolated afterward to ensure the safety of others?

For a large majority of affected individuals the illness is a minor one and recovery occurs in a couple of weeks.

If you test positive and have no or only mild symptoms then you remain infective for some days.

At present we ask people to assume that they are infective for seven days after becoming unwell, including at least two days without a fever, or after having two negative tests 24 hours apart.

If you are more seriously ill your doctor will advise you how long to assume you are infectious.

The Australian Government publishes detailed information about COVID-19, including advice about what steps people who do become infected should take (see here).

As the virus is susceptible to heat will heavy, sweaty exercise daily help avoid it getting hold in the body?


When will it be controlled? Running low on necessary items as people go into panic. Will it get worse?

It is likely to get worse. In Australia we expect the epidemic to peak in about June, following which the number of new cases should fall.

It is quite likely that at least some of the recommended restrictions will remain for a few months after that.

As government and health officials have emphasised, hoarding necessary items is harmful to everyone.

What is needed is for members of the community to work together to support each other – including especially elderly, disabled and other vulnerable people.

How can you protect a new born baby from COVID-19?

Children and young people seem to be affected much less than older people but are not immune.

Babies are most likely to be infected by their parents or carers, so the way to protect them is for these people to avoid infection by taking the usual precautions.

Why are we so concerned? Most people have mild symptoms. The yearly flu kills thousands and this has no effect on travel or large groups of people. Why is COVID–19 causing such a panic?

SARS-CoV2 is as infectious as the flu but ten times as dangerous.

It has already killed more than 10,000 people and in many countries the epidemic is only just getting underway.

It is an extremely serious health emergency but if we work together we should be able to limit its harmful consequences so that the most vulnerable members of our society can stay safe.

If we have reached the point where the virus is transmitting from person to person here in Australia, why does the government still refuse to test everyone who has flu-like symptoms? 

Not only are the tests expensive and in short supply but testing everyone has limited benefit.

The main purpose of testing is to identify people who need to continue safe contact with others (for example, health professionals) or else to be able to trace contacts to reduce spread to others.

Outside these circumstances, a negative test is of limited use (because the person could still become infected at a later time) and a positive test gives little guidance regarding treatment.

Some people are saying that if you catch the coronavirus before it reaches the lungs, it remains in the throat for four days.

At this time a person begins to cough and have throat pains. If at this stage the person drink a lot of warm water and does gargles with salt or vinegar, it eliminates the virus. Is that true?

There is no evidence that this is true.

Do we have enough medical supplies if it gets bad?

There is no current drug treatment for COVID-19 so if someone gets very sick our main approach is to support them with whatever methods they need, including, in very serious cases, with mechanical assistance with breathing in a hospital.

Obviously, the availability of ventilation machines is very limited so if the numbers of very sick patients increase rapidly we will not be able to treat everyone.

We have not yet reached this point in Australia.

Why did it spread so quickly in Italy?

There are many theories about this but it seems likely that specific features in Italy that increased the vulnerability of its population included its ageing population, high smoking rates and close habitual physical contact, in greetings etc.

Population movement patterns and a delayed early response led to the medical system being overwhelmed, as a result of which death rates rapidly increased.

We put used tissues in the compost bin. Is this a safe practice?

It is probably safe in all cases.

However, where there is a proven case health authorities recommend that such waste be secured in plastic bags and disposed of in household rubbish in order to reduce environmental contamination.

Some people say COVID-19 can affect pets, can you please confirm?

It is theoretically possible but so far there is no evidence of pet animals contracting the disease or humans being infected from their pets.

This is, therefore, not something you have to worry about.

What is the reason behind not being able to ‘touch your own face?’ Is the virus already on our own body surfaces? 

The virus is spread via droplets into people’s noses and mouths so if you pick up the virus on your hand and transfer it to your face you risk becoming infected.

In normal circumstances the virus is not present on body surfaces or in the general environment.

What about countries suspected of under reporting?

Testing is quite expensive and many countries, especially less developed ones, do not have the capacity to test large numbers of people.

This means that in these countries it is difficult to know how many people are infected or to trace the contacts of those who are.

As the disease continues to spread this may become a major issue, both for those countries and for people considering traveling to them.

How did it start and what caused it?

It is thought that the SARS-CoV2 virus is a mutated version of an animal virus that turned out to be highly infective to humans.

The first cases were recorded in Wuhan in China but at present this is all we know about where, when or how it first came into existence.

Why can’t we close our schools, airport and shopping centres for a month to limit the spread? It’s a very serious case. 

It is likely that the lock-down will extend, but we still need people to produce and distribute food and other commodities, and to provide services, care, and support of all kinds to the whole society.

Shutting everything down for a month will not make the epidemic go away but only delay its spread somewhat.

If we can achieve a delay sufficient to allow us to treat serious cases by less drastic measures that will be better.

If this is not possible a full shutdown may be inevitable.

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