COVID-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019, is an infection caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), a newly identified and highly contagious pathogen not previously seen in humans. Though it belongs to the same category of viruses as SARS and influenza viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is a different strain with its own characteristics.
COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, and the outbreak spread quickly across the world, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a pandemic.
How does COVID-19 spread?
Because COVID-19 is a new virus, nobody has prior immunity to it, meaning the entire human population is prone to infection. Based on available evidence, scientists think the virus spreads primarily via respiratory droplets when people talk, cough, or sneeze.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Common symptoms of COVID-19 begin two to 14 days after exposure. They include fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Other symptoms include loss of taste or smell, nasal congestion, sore throat, muscle and joint pain, chills, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.
Most of these symptoms are usually mild, and about 80% of people who get the virus will typically recover without needing any special treatment.
However, it is estimated that about 15% become seriously ill and develop breathing difficulties, and 5% become critically ill and require intensive care. Symptoms of serious COVID-19 include shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and pain or pressure in the chest.
People over the age of 60 and those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung issues, cancer, and high blood pressure are most at risk of becoming seriously ill.
What general preventive measures should people take?
The following simple preventive measures can help minimize the spread of COVID-19:
- Always wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when in public.
- Observe proper social distancing. Keep at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) of space between you and other people.
- Wash your hands often with soap, lathering both the front and the back of the hands and fingers for at least 15 to 20 seconds. If soap is not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with someone who is ill.
- Stay at home if you are sick.
- Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze and dispose of it properly afterward.
- Disinfect surfaces and objects you touch frequently.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Are LEMS patients at an increased risk?
Patients with Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS) may be at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or of developing more severe symptoms. Patients should follow the guidelines of their country or region for high-risk individuals.
In addition, many LEMS patients are on immunosuppressive medications that make their immune system weaker, increasing their risk of developing COVID-19. However, LEMS patients are not advised to stop their current medications unless specifically instructed to do so by their physicians.
There is no evidence at this point that medications commonly used to treat LEMS, including Firdapse (pyridostigmine), Ruzurgi (3,4-diaminopyridine), intravenous immunoglobulin, and plasma exchange — increase the risk of COVID-19 infection.
Advice for family members and caregivers
Family members and caregivers of people with chronic diseases such as LEMS should take appropriate precautions and take extra care to avoid bringing COVID-19 home. They should constantly monitor patients and stock medicines and other necessary supplies that can last for several weeks. Storing extra non-perishable food can help minimize trips to the grocery store.
What should sick individuals do?
If symptoms are present or a COVID-19 diagnosis is confirmed, the following steps should be taken to prevent the spread of infection:
- Stay at home, preferably in a separate room not shared with others, and isolate yourself, with the exception of getting medical care.
- Avoid public areas and public transport.
- Wear a mask if you have to be around people.
- Limit contact with pets and animals.
- Avoid sharing personal items.
- Cover coughs and sneezes with tissues and dispose of them properly.
- Sanitize hands regularly.
- Disinfect surfaces such as phones, keyboards, toilets, and tables.
What tests are available?
Many tests to detect COVID-19 are now available under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization, including rapid tests that can produce results within minutes.
The Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics provides an up-to-date list of different manual and automated tests that are available or currently in development.
What about treatments and vaccines?
Several medications have been approved or authorized for emergency use by the FDA to treat COVID-19.
Antiviral Veklury (remdesivir) is the first therapy fully approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19; it is indicated for hospitalized patients 12 and older. Several monoclonal antibodies have also received emergency use authorization from the FDA for the treatment of COVID-19 in various healthcare settings, including Olumiant (baricitinab), bamlanivimab, casirivimab, and imdevimab.
The FDA has also granted emergency use authorization to two mRNA vaccines, one from Pfizer and BioNTech and another from Moderna. Another vaccine, by Johnson & Johnson, also recently received emergency use authorization.
Elsewhere, China-based Sinovac’s vaccine, CoronaVac, has received authorization for use in several countries, including China, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Turkey. SingPharm also has a vaccine that is approved for use in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The U.K., European Union, and Canada have all approved AstraZeneca’s vaccine, developed in partnership with Oxford University.
Based on evidence to date, the FDA has said the currently approved vaccines likely pose little risk to those with a rare disease, but individuals should discuss the potential benefits and/or risks with their healthcare providers.
More information on COVID-19 and the FDA’s response is available here.
Last updated: April 19, 2021
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