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How Companies Are Getting Fast Coronavirus Tests for Employees

As businesses try to recover from the pandemic’s economic blow while ensuring the safety of workers and customers, many have complained of two obstacles: access to coronavirus testing for their employees and long delays in receiving results.

But some have found a reliable workaround. Through a growing number of intermediaries, they can generally obtain test results in one to three days, often by circumventing large national labs like Quest and LabCorp that have experienced backlogs and relying on unused capacity at smaller labs instead.

The intermediaries occupied various corners of the health care galaxy before the pandemic, like offering treatment on behalf of insurance companies or providing employee access to human resources data. Now they are addressing what Rajaie Batniji, an executive at one of the companies, calls “a supply-chain optimization failure.”

“The bottleneck in the crudest terms is: Are you routing tests to processing labs that can process it immediately?” said Dr. Batniji, a physician and co-founder of Collective Health, which administers health plans for employers and created a separate testing and screening product during the pandemic. “That ends up being what slows us down.”

Daniel Castillo, the chief medical officer of Matrix Medical Network, which is among the companies connecting businesses with laboratories, said the solution often meant turning to labs located where the spread of the virus was relatively contained.

“In some places there are spikes and perhaps testing issues; in other parts of the country there are not,” said Dr. Castillo, whose company works with health insurers to treat chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension. “We might send a test across the country — fly it to Maryland from Arizona.”

While there is not limitless capacity for employers to test workers, Dr. Batniji, Dr. Castillo and others in the industry said significantly more could do so. Even Quest and LabCorp have said their average turnaround times have dropped significantly in recent weeks.

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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

A program intended to catch infections before they result in outbreaks typically requires testing a substantial portion of people in a shared space once a week, if not more frequently, whether or not they have symptoms. Mike Boots, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said that such testing could be enormously beneficial, but that it must be combined with other measures, like distancing and contact tracing, to be effective.

For PCR tests — which detect the virus’s genetic material and are the gold standard of accuracy — the process typically costs around $100 per test per person. Even less sensitive tests, which experts increasingly recommend as a screening tool, can add up, and most currently require special equipment and a health professional to administer them.

As a result, decisions about testing often reveal less about availability than about the economics of a business and the value it places on driving down workplace transmission.

Businesses for which an outbreak among employees would be extremely costly — possibly curtailing or halting operations — are generally the most likely to seek out tests.

“If there is a significant probability of a shutdown, it’s a no-brainer — you’re going to do everything you can privately to stop it,” said Jonathan Kolstad, an economist at Berkeley who has written about efficient means of mass testing and has set up a company to help promote it. “But in some cases, you don’t get a shutdown.”

In those cases, Mr. Kolstad and other economists said, employers are unlikely to carry out testing until it is cheaper and faster.

Cameron Manufacturing in upstate New York is putting a premium on employee testing. The company, which makes conveyor belts and other equipment for food and dairy processors, only briefly shut down because of the pandemic, but many customers delayed sales visits and installation work, wary of admitting outsiders.

“It’s affecting us revenue-wise,” Matthew Sharpe, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview in August. “We haven’t had major contracts canceled, but they’ve been pushed out into next year.”

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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times
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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

So that month, Mr. Sharpe began regular PCR testing for members of his sales and engineering teams, who typically travel to customers’ work sites. Workers are also tested before and after they travel to a “hot” state for work, which could otherwise require isolating themselves for several days upon returning. Mr. Sharpe said Cameron employees received test results through a website within 36 hours and could use the information to establish their health status to customers.

The company that built the site, Atlas ID, connected Cameron with a lab in Washington State that analyzed its tests. Atlas was founded in 2018 to give workers secure access to employment and income verification data, so they could share it easily with lenders and property managers. When the pandemic hit, it shifted its focus to employers in need of testing while building a network of labs to serve them.

Chip Luman, a co-founder of Atlas ID and its chief operating officer, said those relationships benefited smaller labs by offering steadier demand. “If I’m bringing in this partner that can guarantee me 100 tests every Monday from this employer, 500 from that one, they can look at capacity and plan business around that,” Mr. Luman said.

US BioTek, the lab near Seattle that handles Cameron’s tests, previously focused on allergy testing, among other services, but invested in new testing equipment during the pandemic.

Jack Frausing, US BioTek’s chief executive, said in an email that he had contacted Atlas on LinkedIn after reading about the company in the press. Mr. Frausing said US BioTek was able to provide results for over 95 percent of the samples it received within 24 hours and had the capacity to more than triple its test processing.

Other employers have begun regular testing of asymptomatic workers for similar reasons.

Some, like the meat processors Tyson Foods and JBS, have done so after outbreaks forced them to shut down facilities temporarily, and in the face of pressure from the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Representatives of both companies said they had begun testing to help protect workers.

Kate Maguire, the artistic director and chief executive of the Berkshire Theater Group, which went ahead with a production of “Godspell” this summer after two months of discussions with an actors’ union about safety protocols, said frequent testing of all the actors was indispensable.

“I didn’t know otherwise how to feel secure,” Ms. Maguire said. “If we had an outbreak, that would have been the end of us for a long time.”

But the flip side of this calculus, some economists said, is that employers who believe they can continue to operate even if a number of workers become infected will often forgo the expense of testing.

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Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

Zack Cooper, an economist at Yale’s School of Public Health, who contributed to a recent Rockefeller Foundation report on a national testing plan, said many businesses faced a key consideration: “If an employee gets sick, will they be able to bring someone else in to do their job?”

Some automakers, for example, have relied on an increase in temporary workers to deal with absences related to Covid-19, though they assert that the practice is unrelated to their decision to forgo wide-scale testing.

While the United Automobile Workers union has demanded such testing for months, several automakers have said it is not yet practical.

James R. Cain, a General Motors spokesman, said by email that until there was an accurate test that could deliver results very quickly, without the need for a lab, “mass testing will have limited if any value in helping G.M. prevent disease from getting into the workplace.” Mr. Cain added that the company was continuing to explore testing strategies but that its safety protocols, which include protective equipment and distancing, had been effective so far.

Mr. Kolstad of Berkeley and other economists say genuine uncertainty about the value of testing workers without symptoms — including about how often testing must occur and how quickly the results must be obtained to be useful — may lead employers to forgo testing.

The federal government has largely avoided providing employers with guidance on asymptomatic testing — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says such testing of workers “may be useful to detect Covid-19 early and stop transmission quickly” — which has created additional reluctance. The agency recently stopped recommending testing for people without symptoms in its guidelines for the general public, drawing criticism from experts.

Some employers may also worry that knowledge of infections they discover through testing could expose them to lawsuits from workers or customers if they continue operating.

Many experts argue that more widespread testing by employers will ultimately hinge less on capacity than on cost. They recommend greater use of tests that are less sensitive but faster and cheaper than PCR tests, but those tests have experienced regulatory hurdles and other bottlenecks.

“If it was easy as taking a temperature,” said Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard, “then no doubt every employer and every office you went into would be testing people all the time.”

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Coronavirus Doctors Battle Another Scourge: Misinformation

An emergency room doctor in Illinois was accused in April of profiting from naming coronavirus as the cause of a patient’s death, a rumor spreading online.

An internist in New York treated a vomiting patient in May who drank a bleach mixture as part of a fake virus cure found on YouTube.

And in June a paramedic in Britain aided a clearly sick man who had refused to go to a hospital after reading misleading warnings about poor coronavirus treatment on social media.

Doctors on the front lines of the global pandemic say they are fighting not just the coronavirus, but also increasingly combating a never-ending scourge of misinformation about the disease that is hurting patients.

Before the pandemic, medical professionals had grown accustomed to dealing with patients misled by online information, a phenomenon they called Dr. Google. But in interviews, more than a dozen doctors and misinformation researchers in the United States and Europe said the volume related to the virus was like nothing they had seen before. They blamed leaders like President Trump for amplifying fringe theories, the social media platforms for not doing enough to stamp out false information and individuals for being too quick to believe what they see online.

Last week, researchers said that at least 800 people worldwide died in the first three months of the year, and thousands more were hospitalized, from unfounded claims online that ingesting highly concentrated alcohol would kill the virus. Their findings, based on studying rumors circulating on the web, were published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Doctors’ frustrations fill Facebook groups and online forums. The American Medical Association and other groups representing doctors say the false information spreading online is harming the public health response to the disease. The World Health Organization is developing methods to measure the harm of virus-related misinformation online, and over two weeks in July the group hosted an online conference with doctors, public health experts and internet researchers about how to address the problem.

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Credit…Dylan Cole for The New York Times

Doctors say patients regularly resist their counsel, more inclined to believe what they read on Facebook than what a medical professional tells them. The falsehoods, they say, have undermined efforts to get people to wear masks and fueled a belief that the seriousness of the disease is overblown. Some doctors say they face abuse when they participate in online discussions to correct the record.

“This is no longer just an anecdotal observation that some individual doctors have made,” said Daniel Allington, a senior lecturer at King’s College London and co-author of a recent study that found people who obtained their news online, instead from radio or television, were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and not follow public health guidelines. “This is a statistically significant pattern that we can observe in a large survey.”

Dr. Howard Mell, an emergency room physician in an Illinois suburb of St. Louis, said the wife of a man who had died from the coronavirus in April accused him of falsely filling out the death certificate to make more money for himself. He explained that the form was accurate and that his pay was not based on the cause of death.

“She yelled, ‘We’ve seen online how you guys get more money,’” Dr. Mell said.

Since then, the situation has not improved, he said. Several times per week, he meets someone who believes false medical information that was discovered online.

“It has absolutely become a job unto itself,” said Dr. Mell, who is also a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, a group representing E.R. doctors.

Some doctors say they get into arguments with patients who demand prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, the unproven drug championed by Mr. Trump. At some hospitals, people have arrived asking for a doctor’s note so they do not have to wear a mask at work because they believe it will harm their oxygen levels, another online rumor.

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Credit…Jess T. Dugan for The New York Times

“Now the numbers have picked way back up again, and I feel a lot has to do with things on social media, like this isn’t a big deal and we don’t have to take all these steps,” said Dr. David Welsh, a surgeon in Indiana who has treated coronavirus patients, referring to a recent infection surge in his area.

Online platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which is owned by Google, have introduced policies to limit coronavirus misinformation and elevate information from trusted sources like the World Health Organization. This month, Facebook and Twitter removed a post by Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign that falsely claimed that children do not get coronavirus.

“We have been aggressive in both removing harmful false claims and directing people to authoritative information,” Facebook said in a statement. The company, which held a call with doctors in June to hear their concerns, said it had removed more than seven million pieces of virus misinformation, and added warning labels to millions more.

YouTube said it was “committed to providing timely and helpful information around Covid-19” and had removed more than 200,000 dangerous or misleading videos.

But untrue information continues to spread. Last month, a video from a group of people calling themselves America’s Frontline Doctors was viewed millions of times. It shared misleading claims about the virus, including that hydroxychloroquine is an effective coronavirus treatment and that masks do not slow the spread of the virus.

The scale of the problem led last month to a British parliamentary report that added to calls in the country for tougher laws against the largest social media platforms, like Facebook and YouTube.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Kentucky, said a number of sick patients had waited until it was nearly too late to visit a hospital because they were convinced by what they had read online that Covid-19 was fake or “no big deal.”

“They thought it was just a ploy, a sham, a conspiracy,” Dr. Stanton recalled. “It just blew my mind that you can put these blinders on and ignore the facts.”

Thomas Knowles, a paramedic in Britain, said a person in June refused to be admitted after reading that hospitals would make his condition worse. The incident so troubled Mr. Knowles that he went searching social media for virus-related misinformation, where he encountered false claims like doctors taking people’s blood for research and then leaving them to die.

“I’ve never personally encountered such a strong, consistent — and so clearly coordinated from somewhere — collective of people so entrenched in their false beliefs,” Mr. Knowles said.

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Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

Some doctors in cities like New York said the volume of patients believing misinformation had declined as the disease swept their area. But, they said, it remained a troubling trend.

Dr. Parinda Warikarn, who works at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York, said the patient who had ingested bleach after seeing the bogus treatment on YouTube came into the hospital with severe abdominal pain.

“He clearly really believed that he was going to prevent Covid,” she said. “Luckily, his wife and two young children didn’t take this solution.”

A growing fear is that vaccine conspiracy theories could undermine eventual vaccination efforts, said Dr. John Wright from the Bradford Institute for Health Research in England.

“Social media brings many great things but it also provides a platform to sow the seeds of doubt, and that’s what has happened,” he said.

Dr. Wright recalled that Congolese immigrants believed a social media rumor that Covid-19 was a government trick to deport them, and that others, from the Indian community, cited posts about doctors intentionally infecting patients. A nurse at the hospital complained to Facebook about people posting names and pictures of health workers accusing them of leaving patients to die.

Dr. Mell, the physician in Illinois, encounters regular abuse from Facebook users when he has pushed back on false information. But he believes the effort is necessary to keep falsehoods from spreading.

“Doctors have to continue to speak the truth as loudly as we can,” he said. “People need to hear it.”

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A Multibillion-Dollar Opportunity: Virus-Proofing the New Office

Truework, an income verification start-up, recently introduced software to help employers keep track of their workers’ health status.

Gensler, an architecture and design firm, has a workplace floor-planning app that generates social-distancing layouts for desks and other office furniture.

PwC, the professional services firm, is using technology that it originally developed to track inventory for a new contact-tracing system that logs employee interactions so workers can be notified in the event of exposure to the coronavirus.

With companies pressing to figure out how to safely reopen workplaces, makers of everything from office furniture to smart ventilation systems are rushing to sell them products and services marketed as solutions. Some companies, like makers of thermal cameras that sense skin temperature, are rebranding their wares as virus-containment fever-scanning products. Others are creating entirely new services.

And they have a captive market. To protect employees and reduce liability for virus outbreaks at work, companies are racing to comply with public health guidelines on issues like employee screening and social distancing. In the United States, the market for contact-tracing technologies for employers could soon be worth $4 billion annually, according to estimates from International Data Corporation, a market research firm.

But the preventive tools and pandemic workplace rules are so new — as is the emerging science on the virus — that it is too soon to tell how well, or if, they work.

“These are all untested theories and methods right now,” said Laura Becker, a research manager focusing on employee experience at I.D.C. “What is going to be the most effective component of all of these work force return strategies? We don’t know.”

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Credit…Jared Soares for The New York Times

When workers eventually return to the office, they may find that the lobby resembles an airport security checkpoint. At least that’s the vision that Kastle Systems, a 48-year-old Falls Church, Va., company that designs, installs and monitors security systems for several thousand commercial buildings, recently began marketing to its clients.

Businesses that use the company’s coronavirus management system, KastleSafeSpaces, may ask employees to download an app that will automatically open entrance doors for people eligible to come to the office. Workers who fill out a health screening questionnaire ahead of time may proceed to a lobby fast lane to have their temperatures checked. Those who have been asked to stay home because they recently tested positive for coronavirus may go on a kind of no-fly list and find that doors will automatically stay closed for them.

“The idea is really to create this profile where you can identify who is known safe, who’s known not safe and then who needs to be screened when they get in,” said Mark D. Ein, the chairman of Kastle. “It’s a little bit like airports where you have Clear precheck or regular check, depending on people’s profile.”

Clear, the biometric identification company known for its air-traveler identification service, recently introduced a system called Health Pass for office buildings, restaurants, retailers, cruise ships and sports arenas. It will use facial recognition to confirm employees’ identities and vet worker-provided health information — such as symptom data and verified test results — so they can be cleared to enter workplaces. Caryn Seidman-Becker, Clear’s chief executive, said this kind of multilayered approach to entry screening could help reduce risk for employers and create a safer working environment.

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Credit…Jared Soares for The New York Times

Since coronavirus particles can stick around for hours or days, vendors are rushing to repurpose technologies to reduce the spread of the droplets. Kastle said it was modifying an app that can automatically open office doors to allow employees to call an elevator and indicate which floor they want to go to without touching any buttons.

Jennifer Burns, senior vice president of property management and operations at Monday Properties, a commercial real estate owner, operator and developer, said her company has limited elevator capacity to four people at a time, asked employees going to higher floors to go to the back while riding and installed markers showing where people should stand. As an interim measure, she said, Monday Properties has installed self-cleaning antimicrobial covers, made by a Virginia company called NanoTouch, on elevator buttons for additional protection. Kastus, a company in Dublin, is also marketing its antimicrobial coatings to combat the spread of coronavirus.

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Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Steelcase, one of the largest manufacturers of office furniture, has long created and installed office desk systems designed to foster greater collaboration by pushing employees closer together and lowering partitions — the open office.

Now, companies are quickly trying to reverse that trend in a low-cost and flexible way. They want to remove chairs and desks and install screens or other dividers between remaining desks, said Allan Smith, a vice president for global marketing for Steelcase.

Office lockers are hot sellers, said Lori Gee, a vice president of client workplace performance for the furniture design company Herman Miller, which works with many Fortune 100 companies. Employees will have their own lockers where they will stow much — if not all — of their personal belongings and collect their personal protective equipment kits.

The days of crowding into a narrow glass conference room are over.

Most conference rooms are designed with narrow layouts, which means employees have to break social distancing just to squeeze past co-workers to get to their seats. “There’s going to have to be a total reboot on what conference rooms mean to organizations,” Ms. Gee said.

Instead, smaller group meetings will be held with employees spaced apart on the clusters of couches and chairs that have popped up in offices in recent years.

But companies are seeking to replace the sofas upholstered in soft, luxurious fabrics with something more durable. “One of our biggest requests for those spaces are durable, super-fast color fabrics that they can, essentially, pour straight bleach on every single night,” Mr. Smith of Steelcase said. “They’re also looking to add white boards and technology to these spaces.”

Say goodbye to crowding around the coffee machine at midmorning to talk about the latest Netflix show you binged.

Social distancing requirements will be difficult to manage in any space where there is an opportunity for people to stand and mingle, said David Bailey, the chief executive officer of corporate services for the French food services giant Sodexo.

Instead, Sodexo has developed an app called Twelve that allows corporate employee to pre-order and pay for their morning coffee and doughnuts.

“You don’t have to go to the cafeteria to pick it up,” Mr. Bailey said. “Companies are spreading pickup locations to three or four locations in the building. And the app uses an algorithm that manages the time periods to make sure there is no crowding.”

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Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times

Over the past decade, upscale corporate cafeterias have increasingly featured sushi bars, grass-fed made-to-order hamburgers, freshly made quinoa-and-kale salads, all overseen by former chefs at top restaurants.

Now, many of these on-site cafeterias are likely to disappear.

“Even before this happened, a lot of organizations were already looking at the cost of real estate and the cost of the cafeteria and wondering if they needed it as a large percentage of their employees were working one or two days from home,” Mr. Bailey said. “Now, we’re seeing a big change in food delivery, away from on-site cafeteria model to a commissary delivery model.” Using an app like Twelve, employees can pre-order and pay for sandwiches and salads and collect them when they are delivered.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 22, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


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