COVID-19: General Advice

Updated Monday March 2

This is part of a series about the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. See also:
COVID-19: What to Expect
COVID-19: Specific Advice

This post was written by Tornus (who has no professional qualifications but has an extensive amateur interest in epidemiology) and Dr Smartypants, who is a physician and infectious disease epidemiologist with extensive experience working at the CDC and public health departments. We have endeavored to provide accurate, concise, and actionable information here. However, the best source of information about COVID is the official CDC page. You should trust the CDC more than us (or anyone else).


We are at a pivotal moment in the COVID-19 pandemic. We now know that COVID-19 is spreading in North America and will be a serious pandemic but we don’t yet know how serious it will be. Until we know more, we will all need to make decisions based on incomplete information. As you move forward, keep four things in mind:

The situation is evolving fast. Remain flexible and be prepared to adapt as new information becomes available. Take precautions now when appropriate, but don’t rush to cancel big plans immediately if you can wait a few weeks.

We believe that COVID-19 is primarily spread by person to person contact: coughing or sneezing near someone, and standing within 6 feet of them. An easy, important thing to do now is to focus on standard precautions for reducing the spread of respiratory diseases.

If the pandemic turns out to be as bad as it is likely to be, early and comprehensive social distancing strategies are likely to be critical to reducing the toll it takes on our community. These won’t be fun, but they will be the most important thing we can do to save lives.

As you make decisions, consider the impact of your decision on other people. If you are a young healthy adult, COVID-19 is unlikely to impact you severely. But the choices you make can protect or endanger other, more vulnerable people.

Social distancing

Social distancing is the technical term for reducing disease transmission by reducing opportunities for the disease to spread via casual social contact. Because many people with COVID-19 are likely to have mild symptoms and because it can be transmitted simply by being in close proximity to an infected person, social distancing precautions will probably be critical to reducing the impact of the pandemic. Some social distancing precautions include:

  • Minimize physical contact: consider not hugging or shaking hands until the acute phase of the pandemic has passed.
  • Increase physical separation. If you’re in an enclosed space with a group of people, consider spreading out to leave more space between people.
  • Reduce social contact. Any event with multiple people in an enclosed space is an opportunity for the virus to spread. The more people and the closer the proximity, the higher the risk.

Experience with the 1918 flu pandemic tells us that the earlier we implement aggressive social distancing strategies, the less severe this pandemic will be.

Be thoughtful about others

In the last few days, we’ve spoken to a number of people who are young and healthy and want to make a risk-aware decision to continue living their lives without worrying about COVID-19. We can’t tell you what to do, but we urge you to be very thoughtful about how your decisions impact other people.

The limited evidence we have so far suggests that while COVID-19 usually doesn’t cause severe disease in young and healthy people, they probably do become fully infectious, often with mild or no symptoms. They are therefore likely to remain active in the community at large, where they can infect individuals who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

As you decide what’s right for you, please be risk-aware not only on your own behalf, but on behalf of everyone you come in contact with:

  • Your baristas and restaurant servers, who can’t work from home (and who likely don’t have adequate health insurance).
  • The people on your bus, who have to sit next to you if they want to get to work.
  • Your co-workers.
  • The healthcare workers who will have to take care of you if you get sick.
    Think also about the people they may live with or care for.

Non nobis solum, friends: not for ourselves alone are we born. If you have the privilege of being young and healthy, consider whether you’re willing to temporarily give up a little fun to help protect people who lack that privilege.