COVID-19 explained: a quick guide to help you understand the virus

5 minutes

COVID-19, described by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as the 'worst public health crisis for a generation' (press briefing, March 13, 2020) is a new type of virus that affects humans. The virus can infect your body when you breathe it in (after someone coughs nearby) or after touching a contaminated surface and then your face (eyes, nose, mouth). (find out more about how coronavirus affects your body in this BBC article).


Whilst most who are infected only suffer mild symptoms or even get no symptoms at all (which is known as being asymptomatic), but for older adults and those with pre-existing conditions (see the full list of conditions here), the virus can have severe implications, which means that we need to take extra precautions.



What are coronaviruses?


It’s important to first understand that the current coronavirus is not a unique disease. COVID-19, however, is a unique strain of coronavirus. 


  • Coronavirus are a family of viruses that primarily infect animals. 
  • There are hundreds of coronaviruses, most of which circulate among animals including pigs, camels, bats and cats. 
  • Only seven, including the new virus, have made the jump to humans.
  • COVID-19 emerged in December 2019 from China. It’s caused by the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.
  • The 2019 novel coronavirus is a new strain that has not been identified in humans before.


How contagious is coronavirus compared to seasonal flu?


As COVID-19 is a new disease, the data is still being processed by scientists across the world. 

What we do know is:


  • Globally, for seasonal influenza (the common flu that we’ve all probably had in our lifetime), the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates the mortality rate is usually below 0.1%.
  • The appearance of seasonal flu symptoms (from the day of infection) is usually quicker, which suggests that seasonal flu can take hold quicker than the coronavirus, however, it is not as contagious. 
  • Each person with Covid-19 infects an average of between two and 2.5 other people with the virus, which is higher than the rate for seasonal flu.
  • The difference between the two lies in the ability for COVID-19 to lie dormant, which means you might not even know you have it, but you could still be infecting others, who then pass the virus on to more people. This is how ‘community transmission’ happens.
  • Because the flu has been circulating for many years, plenty of people have developed a degree of immunity to them. That’s not the case for this coronavirus.
  • More people seem to be dying of coronavirus than seasonal flu, but the WHO does warn that the “true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand”




How do I know if I’m infected with COVID-19?


One of the biggest concerns is knowing whether you are infected with the virus. As most people only have mild symptoms, it can be difficult to tell whether you have COVID-19 (and could pass it on). For home care agencies and those providing care, it can be a challenge to maintain staffing levels as even those with mild symptoms have been instructed by the government to self isolate, for a period of 7-14 days, depending on their living situation. (You can see the guidance here).


  • At present, you’ll only get tested for COVID-19 if you develop severe symptoms that require hospitalisation. 
  • The coronavirus test that the Government currently uses can only tell whether a person has the virus, not if they have had it and recovered. These swab tests also take a long time to get a result. 
  • The government is aiming to test 25,000 people per day, although this hasn’t been achieved yet.
  • Testing is being rolled out for NHS workers and frontline staff, in the form of antigen tests that show whether you’ve had the virus before (and are immune). Find out more about the testing, here



Is there a coronavirus vaccine?


In short, no. Not yet. Scientists are working hard across the world to develop one, but this could take months before it’s ready. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to make use of the government guidelines on handwashing practices and as a care provider, use the correct PPE.  


Want more advice on COVID-19? Head to our coronavirus hub for more practical advice for home care providers during the pandemic.

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