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What to do if you think you have coronavirus

More than 20 cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Illinois. If you think you’ve been infected with the coronavirus, here’s what you should do.

Patient intake area at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Patient intake area at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. File photo.
Neil Steinberg | Chicago Sun-Times

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday. In Illinois, more than 20 cases have been identified.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised that the general American public is at low risk of contracting COVID-19 — and Allison Arwady, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, said Chicago is ‘a very long way’ from widespread coronavirus — organizations across the city are encouraging voluntary quarantines. Events hosted in the city have been canceled, and some businesses and even schools have closed.

Health officials have released information about the travel patterns of the individuals diagnosed in the state, prompting many to wonder if they may have been exposed on public transit or in other crowded environments.

The city and state departments of public health are proactively monitoring Illinois residents who are most likely to have been exposed to the virus. If you aren’t among that group, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Dept. of Public Health, said the best place for patients who test positive for coronavirus to be is at home.

Still, if you’re experiencing respiratory issues or other flu-like symptoms and worry you may have COVID-19, you may be concerned. If you think you’ve been infected with the novel coronavirus, here’s what you should do.

1. Watch for the most common symptoms of COVID-19.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and some people don’t have any symptoms at all. The most common symptoms resemble the flu and include fever, tiredness and dry cough. Some people also develop aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea. Consider seeking help if you find you are experiencing influenza-like symptoms, respiratory issues or other serious illnesses — especially if you’re in one of these high risk groups: people aged over 60 years and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer, according to the WHO.

2. Contact a doctor and describe your symptoms.

Don’t show up at the doctor’s office without calling first — you may be asked to report to an offsite testing center, or your doctor’s office may want to avoid having you pass through a crowded waiting room where immunocompromised people could risk being exposed. If you don’t have a primary care doctor, the state has set up a hotline for people to call with questions about the virus. Chicago residents should call (312) 746-4835 Monday through Friday during business hours, and 311 during evenings, weekends and holidays, or email: coronavirus@chicago.gov.

3. Follow your doctor’s instructions: they may not immediately test you.

In many cases, Illinois residents with a documented risk of exposure to a confirmed coronavirus patient are being advised to self-quarantine at home, as is the case for students, staff and visitors at Vaughn Occupational High School, where a classroom assistant was identified as the state’s sixth coronavirus case. Tests are being administered strategically, Arwady said, both because of a shortage of available tests, and because of the high threshold to register a positive diagnosis. “Those who do not have symptoms either do not have the virus or have it at such low levels that it would not register,” she said.

4. DO NOT go straight to the emergency room.

Hospitals like Rush University Medical Center are implementing “forward triage” protocols to provide testing in isolated environments in an effort to contain the virus. Rush has erected tents that circulate sanitized air outside the emergency room where they can examine potential coronavirus patients. before it’s exhausted outside to avoid cross-contamination elsewhere. “If somebody [with coronavirus] is out in a waiting room sitting with everyone else, then there’s a risk to spread it to other people — that more at-risk population, elderly people with clinical health conditions we’re most worried about in this scenario,” said James DeVries, an instructor of emergency medicine at Rush.

5. If you are advised to get tested, do it — even if you’re uninsured.

On Sunday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker advised residents that all COVID-19 testing is free and covered by the state. He said his office has “spoken with the largest insurance companies in the state of Illinois to make sure that they are offering the care that is needed not only by the people who are fully insured by their companies but also those that are underinsured.”

Anyone who experiences influenza-like symptoms, respiratory issues or other serious illnesses that tests negative for the flu or other viruses will have a sample sent to the Illinois Department of Public Health for a coronavirus screening, public health commissioner Arwady said Sunday.

To help prevent the spread of the contagious coronavirus COVID-19, health officials recommend washing your hands frequently and thoroughly, avoiding handshakes and touching your face, and keeping a distance from people who cough or sneeze.