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A regular person’s guide to outbreak preparedness

You’ve probably read or seen stories about a new virus in Wuhan, China. Scientists are callling it the “novel-Coronavirus” or nCOV, and as of Jan 27 it had been detected in more than 10 countries, with several thousand people infected, hundreds in serious condition, and dozens dead.

That sounds really scary, but right now we don’t know enough about the virus to say for sure what will happen over the next weeks and months. It could disappear nearly as quickly as it arrived. It could fizzle into something more like the Common Cold. There could be a world-wide epidemic of serious disease. Or it could be anything in between.

Much of what happens next will depend on how regular people, like you, react.

One of the main things that determines how big an outbreak gets is how many new people get infected from each person who’s already sick (called the reproductive number). For nCOV, inital guesses from scientists are that on average between 2 and 5 people are being infected by each existing case. (That’s a little bit more than the flu, but not as many as measles.)

But that reproductive number is not a fixed quantity! We can change it through our actions, and if we can, as a society, get that number below 1 the outbreak will disappear naturally!

As a regular person, the best thing you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe, feel in control, and contribute to a successful public health response, is to keep the reproductive number as low as possible! Try not to get sick, and if you do get sick, try not to spread it!

How? Scroll down for some simple tips!

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: First, a bit about me. I am a Harvard-educated epidemiologist and I’m faculty at Boston University. I mostly study how to do better research, for chronic disease and for infectious disease. I’ve had outbreak training, but I don’t work in outbreak response. The goal of this article is to provide public health advice but none of this is intended as medical advice (I don’t have medical training!).

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Things everyone should do

There are several simple things you can do to keep yourself healthy in an outbreak:

  • Wash your hands regularly — especially after touching very public surfaces like subway poles, or door handles, and after coughing, sneezing, or using the toilet.

Things to do if you’re sick

The symptoms of nCOV are a lot like the common cold or the flu, and so it can be hard to know what’s causing your coughs, sniffles, or sneezes. For now, it seems like the only people who are likely to have nCOV are those who’ve recently been to Wuhan China or those who live with someone who was recently there. Regardless, if you’re feeling unwell there are several important things you should do in an outbreak situation:

  • Stay home — even if you feel well enough to go to work, run errands, or hang out with friends, the best thing you can do for everyone is stay at home where you can’t spread whatever infection you might have. This is true whether it’s a cold, the flu, or nCOV.

Special considerations for high risk individuals

Some people are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases, especially respiratory diseases like nCOV. These include the very young and very old, those with compromised immune systems because of other diseases or medical treatments (such as chemotherapy), and those with sensitive airways, such as people with asthma. If you’re in this group of people, you may want to take these extra precautions:

  • Avoid crowded public places — very busy or tightly crowded places may make you more likely to come in contact with nCOV if it’s in your area, and this is also true of other infectious diseases, such as the flu, so if you’re at high risk you might consider minimizing your time in busy public spaces.

Special considerations if a friend or family member is at high risk

If you have a friend or family member who is at high risk, but you yourself aren’t, then you may want to consider checking in on them and offering to help out in some of the following ways:

  • Run errands that require going to crowded public places — your friend or family member will likely want to avoid these areas, so offer to help out with errands that require being in crowds or taking public transit at busy times of the day.

Special considerations if a friend or family member is a health care worker or emergency responder

Health care workers and emergency responders, like ambulance workers, public health field agents, and volunteers can have special needs in an outbreak. In particular, they may be asked to work extra hours and can be at higher risk of infection than the general public. If a friend or family member is in this group, some things you could do to help include:

  • Offer childcare, elder care, or pet care — while your friend or family member is working hard to keep others healthy, they may have to disrupt their regular routine. This can mean they have unmet childcare, elder care, pet care, plant care, etc needs suddenly. Help them fill these gaps if you can.


On TV and in movies, outbreaks are very frightening things, but in reality your community likely deals with multiple infectious disease outbreaks a year and you probably don’t even notice. An outbreak just means “an unexpected number of cases of an infectious disease”. When a disease is new to science, then even 1 case is unexpected and counts as an outbreak. Other outbreaks that happen regularly include stomach viruses like E.coli or norovirus, and childhood infections like hand foot and mouth disease or (increasingly commonly these days) measles.

Outbreaks are inherently a community problem, and so we need to solve them as a community too. Luckily, most of the solutions are simple, no matter the outbreak cause: wash your hands, stay home if you feel sick, eat healthily & get some exercise, keep up-to-date on vaccines, follow advice from your local health department, and check in on family, friends, and neighbors to offer a helping hand!

Remember, the number one way to control an outbreak is to make sure that each person who’s sick infects on average less than one other person. If you’re healthy, try to stay healthy, and if you get sick, do your very best not to infect others. We’re all in this together!

Written by

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. Follow for causal inference, epidemiology, & data science. Twitter: @epiellie

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. Follow for causal inference, epidemiology, & data science. Twitter: @epiellie

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