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COVID-19—everything you need to know, in language you can understand

Tuesday 3 March 2020

A graphic image with the words novel coronavirus (COVID-19)
There are easy steps you can take to protect yourself and those around you from novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

This article was written during the Queensland response to the COVID-19 pandemic and reflects the information available at the date of publication. Please check the Queensland Government COVID-19 webpage for updated information and current health advice regarding COVID-19 in Queensland.

COVID-19 has affected people from many countries around the world. There are lots of people talking about it: health organisations like us, governments, the media, people on social media, your family and friends.

When so many people are talking, it can be tricky to figure out what you need to pay attention to, and sometimes it is hard to understand the information you’re being told. We’ve gathered all the facts you should know about COVID-19.

Why did the name change from novel coronavirus to COVID-19, and what is SARS-CoV-2?

When you look at them through a microscope, coronaviruses look kind of like a crown. Corona means crown in Latin, which is how coronaviruses got their name.

At first, we called this virus ‘novel coronavirus’, which means a new strain of coronavirus. Once scientists figured out exactly what this strain of coronavirus was and how to identify it in tests, they gave it a name: SARS-CoV-2.

When someone gets sick with this virus the illness is called COVID-19. For simplicity, a lot of people are calling the virus and the disease it causes the same name, COVID-19.

What is COVID-19?

SARS-CoV-2 is a new strain of virus in the coronavirus family that has not been previously identified. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

COVID-19 was discovered in 2019 when a higher than normal number of people in Wuhan, China, started to get pneumonia after having an illness similar to the flu. When doctors tested them, they found these people had a type of coronavirus they hadn’t seen before. There were already lots of types of coronavirus in the world, but this one was new.

How is it possible to have a new virus that no one has had before?

Viruses are microscopic organisms that can enter a living host (like you) to live and multiply. Think of them like an unwanted guest that shows up unannounced, moves into your house, eats out of your fridge and begins to reproduce.

When a new virus makes its way into your body, your immune system realises that it’s not part of your normal bodily system, attacks it and tries to kill it. After that, it remembers the virus, so it can get rid of it straight away if it ever comes knocking again.

Just like any living creature, viruses change themselves to survive in their environment. Over time, they change in ways that makes it hard for our immune systems to recognise them. That’s how we end up with new versions of viruses, like this new version of coronavirus. Imagine your unwanted houseguest has come back, but with a wig and new glasses. Your immune system doesn’t recognise it, so it gets in the front door before your immune system realises it should fight it off.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

When you have a virus, it’s not actually the virus that makes you sick, but your immune system’s efforts to get rid of it. For example, your immune system can raise your body temperature and give you a fever, to make it hot enough to kill a virus. All the hard work your immune system is doing can also use up energy and make you feel tired.

Everyone’s body is different, and because symptoms are caused by your immune system and not the virus itself, different people can have slightly different symptoms when they have the same virus, and some people’s symptoms will be worse than others.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, which means it affects the parts of your body you use to breathe: your nose, throat and lungs. If you’re sick with COVID-19, your symptoms might include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • fatigue—feeling unusually tired
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of smell
  • loss of taste
  • sore throat with or without runny nose
  • trouble breathing
  • vomiting or feeling prolonged headache

How does COVID-19 spread and how can I catch it?

COVID-19 spreads between people, usually when a sick person coughs or sneezes.

You might catch COVID-19 if someone with the virus sneezes or coughs onto you. You could also catch the virus if they have coughed or sneezed onto a surface (like a door handle) that you touch, getting the droplets on your hands and then transferring them to your mouth, nose or eyes when you touch your face or eat. Read more in our blog about how the virus spreads.

How can I stop myself from getting it?

Washing your hands often and properly means that you can prevent viruses from entering your body. That means washing your hands when you’ve been out and about and before you eat (and after you go to the toilet!).

Did you know there are six steps to washing your hands properly? Follow the below steps to make sure you’re washing your hands successfully.

A graphic image showing a person washing hands.

Try to stay at least 1.5 metres away from people who are coughing or sneezing. Even if they don’t have COVID-19, they might have germs you don’t want anyway!

We are now asking all Queenslanders to follow social distancing practices:

  • Keep 1.5 metres away from others as much as possible.
  • Avoid shaking hands, kissing or hugging others.
  • If you can, work from home.
  • Avoid gatherings that aren’t essential.

You can find more information in our blog, How does COVID-19 spread and how can I stop myself from catching it.

Is there anything else I can do to make myself less likely to catch COVID-19?

You might have heard that things like eating lots of garlic, taking extra vitamins, doing certain exercises, or burning heaps of essential oils can stop you from catching COVID-19. This isn’t true.

Looking after yourself by eating a healthy, balanced diet, getting regular physical activity, sleeping well and reducing stress is important all the time, not just when you’re trying to avoid getting sick, so we recommend you keep these healthy habits in mind every day.

Should I be wearing a facemask to protect myself from COVID-19?

You might have seen people in public wearing facemasks lately, and wondered if you should, too. There isn’t any evidence that wearing a facemask will stop you from catching a virus like COVID-19, so if you’re well, you don’t need to wear a facemask.

If you’re sick with symptoms of COVID-19 and you have a facemask, you should wear this when you go to medical appointments. This is to protect others from contracting COVID-19 from you.

Why isn’t there a COVID-19 vaccine yet?

For some viruses, we use vaccines to teach your immune system what the virus looks like. As COVID-19 is so new, we don’t have a vaccine for it yet. It’s being worked on by teams all over the world, but it takes quite a long time to make a safe vaccine that works well.

In the meantime, you can protect yourself from catching COVID-19 by washing your hands properly, covering your mouth and nose every time you cough or sneeze, throwing used tissues in the bin, staying at least 1.5 metres away from others and protecting others by staying home if you are sick.

I think I might have COVID-19 – what should I do?

In Queensland, people who have fever (or history of fever) OR acute respiratory symptoms (cough, sore throat, shortness of breath) should be tested for COVID-19.

If you are unwell and you meet the above criteria, you should contact a doctor immediately. Your doctor will decide if you need to be tested for COVID-19. Before your appointment, please call ahead and tell them about your symptoms so they can prepare for your visit. Find out more on our Testing and Fever Clinics information page.

Who is at most risk of catching COVID-19?

Because it’s a new virus, everyone is at risk of catching COVID-19, because our immune systems don’t recognise it yet. This is why everyone around the world is trying so hard to make sure that people with the virus don’t pass it on to others.

This doesn’t mean that everyone is going to get COVID-19, but it does mean we all have a role to play in keeping ourselves and others well. The more everyone follows the advice to wash their hands often and properly, stay at home as much as possible, and stay home when they’re sick, the fewer people will catch this virus.

Who is most at risk of getting seriously unwell from COVID-19?

In countries like China, where there has been the most cases COVID-19, people who have become seriously unwell have been elderly (over 70-years-old) or have already had a health condition like a high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, or are immunocompromised.

We haven’t had many cases in Queensland yet, so it’s too early to tell exactly how this virus will affect Queenslanders. We expect that most people in Queensland who catch COVID-19 will experience a mild illness, like a cold, that lasts a few weeks.

A graphic image with the symptoms of novel coronavirus: fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, shortness of breath.

Does COVID-19 kill people?

A small percentage of people who have contracted the virus around the world have died, which is one major reason that everyone is taking this virus so seriously.

I’m pregnant – am I or is my baby at extra risk of COVID-19?

There haven’t yet been comprehensive studies that show the effect of COVID-19 on pregnant women and their babies – it’s simply too early to have this information.

If you are pregnant, you should continue to take good care of your health, which you’re probably already doing. Just like everyone else, we want you to wash your hands and keep your distance from people other people, especially those who are coughing or sneezing, or who you know to be sick. Seek medical attention if you experience any signs of illness at any time during your pregnancy.

You can find out more about how the COVID-19 response might affect your pregnancy in our blog, Pregnancy, birth and feeding baby during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can I still go to the hospital for my appointment or if I’m sick?

You should still attend hospital and doctor appointments as normal during this time unless contacted by the hospital and told otherwise. You should always go to your closest emergency department or call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance in an emergency.

At hospitals and clinics, we’re very good at keeping people with infectious diseases away from everyone else and are taking a lot of precautions with anyone who might have COVID-19. What we’re not able to do is provide health advice and treatment to people who aren’t at their appointments. If there is any reason for you not to attend your appointment, you will be told.

What is a pandemic?

Epidemics happen when a lot of people in one community get an infectious disease (a disease that can be caught from others). A pandemic happens when there are multiple epidemics of the same disease in communities across the world.

The World Health Organization classes the outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11 March, 2020.

Should I be preparing myself and my home to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic?

Epidemics and pandemics can affect many parts of our lives and the way normal systems are run. In Australia, you will have advanced notice if you need to do anything out of the ordinary to prepare for an epidemic or pandemic and should follow the advice of public health officials.

It’s wise to always have some extra food at home and other supplies like medications and baby needs or pet food, however there is no need to excessively stockpile anything. Queenslanders can prepare an emergency kit to last for 14 days that contains non-perishable food, medications and other supplies like baby needs or pet food. Emergency kits are good practice in preparation for any natural disaster or emergency situation.

Remember, the best things you can do right now are keep up-to-date with our information, wash your hands often and properly, stay 1.5 metres away from other people, and stay home if you’re sick.

Can I travel overseas, interstate or within Queensland?

The Australian Government has advised that Australians should not travel overseas at this time, and those who are overseas should return home as soon as possible. You can read more about overseas travel advice on Smartraveller.

The Queensland Government will be restricting travel into the state from midnight Wednesday 25 March, 2020. Other state and territory governments have introduced similar restrictions.

We understand that lots of people want to go on holidays, see their family and friend, or attend planned events in other states or overseas. At this time, doing so could put your life and the lives of others at risk. We are relying on everyone to do their bit and follow this advice to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Queenslanders are now allowed to travel within the state. More information about travelling and activities within Queensland can be found on the Queensland Government Roadmap to easing restrictions page.

I’m feeling scared/overwhelmed/worried/anxious about COVID-19

It’s totally normal to feel concerned when big events happen in the world. All the news headlines, official government press conferences, and stories from family and friends can seem scary.

We have tips in our blog post about how to look after your mental wellbeing in a crisis, including taking time to switch off and focusing on the things you can control, rather than worrying about things you can’t control. Washing your hands properly and often is the number one thing you can do to protect your health. Stay away from others, especially staying at home if you’re sick, is the best thing you can do to protect others.

If you’re feeling scared, worried or upset for two weeks or more, or how you are feeling is distracting you from going about your normal routines, it’s worth speaking to someone about it – either someone close to you or a medical professional.

More information

Queensland Health: COVID-19

Health Direct: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

World Health Organization: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Contact tracing for COVID-19 - how it's done in Queensland

I have COVID-19 - now what?

Last updated: 3 March 2020