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Your guide to coronavirus and COVID-19

What you need to know about coronavirus and COVID-19, including vaccine information, what to do if you think you might be sick and how to keep you and your family safe.

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COVID variants

Where did the omicron variant come from?

As it has passed back and forth across the world over the past two years, the pandemic-causing virus has changed, sometimes bit by bit; in the case of the omicron variant, seemingly in many ways at one time. Scientists say these changes can be explained by how the coronavirus works, and how infecting people can drive mutations. No "patient zero" has been found for omicron or any other variant, but scientists think they likely evolved within a single immunocompromised person.

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Is the omicron variant the common cold?

No, the omicron coronavirus variant is not the common cold.

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Should I be worried about the omicron variant?

Two pieces of good news about omicron to take into the new year: It may not be around for long, and people who are fully vaccinated don't need to worry, as long as they have a healthy immune system. Because omicron is so incredibly contagious, medical experts say its peak isn't likely to last long. The news is even better for people with the vaccine.

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Do cloth masks work against the omicron variant?

Your cloth face mask isn't protecting you against the COVID-19 variant omicron, health officials say. Health experts are urging the public to opt for three-ply surgical masks, KN95 or N95 masks which offer more protection against the highly contagious variant.

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How does the omicron variant affect children?

It's still unclear whether omicron is more likely to make children sick than earlier variants. Children under 5 are not eligible for vaccination.

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What is the delta variant?

The variant appears to be as much as 60% more contagious than the alpha variant, which was already more contagious than the original strain of the virus that causes COVID-19. Here is what you need to know.

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What is the lambda variant?

The WHO in June called lambda a "variant of interest," meaning it has genetic changes that affect the virus' characteristics and caused significant community spread or clusters of COVID-19 in multiple countries.

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Vaccine

Which vaccine is recommended?

An advisory panel to the CDC expressed their preference for Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccines over Johnson & Johnson’s jab.

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I need to get a booster. What should I know about the vaccines?

The CDC frequently has updated its vaccine guidelines since first recommending boosters for certain groups Sept. 24. Here's your guide to mixing and matching Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson booster shots.

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I got the J&J vaccine. Do I get a third shot?

No, not yet. Of the 16.3 million people who got the J&J vaccine as their first dose, about 3.5 million have gotten boosted, according to the CDC. But they can’t go beyond that. While health officials encourage those who’ve gotten the double-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna series to get a third shot, J&J recipients are limited to their original one and a single booster.

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What else should I know about boosters?

If you’re going to get a booster, that’s going to help bring your level of immunity back to where it was after your second vaccination with mRNA vaccines (made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech) to a level that will protect you certainly against severe forms of COVID-19 but also against mild forms of COVID-19.

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Can children get the COVID-19 vaccine?

In May 2021, the Pfizer vaccine received emergency use authorization in the USA for children 12 and above. Full approval has been granted for older teens, ages 16 and older. In November 2021, children ages 5 to 11 became eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

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Are boosters approved for teens?

The FDA in January 2022 expanded the emergency use authorization of a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to include youths 12 to 15. The agency also reduced the required wait time for a booster from six to five months after the second shot for anyone 12 and older. The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention still must sign off on the authorization.

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I'm vaccinated. Can I still get COVID-19?

Those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can be infected, but serious illness is rare. Some fully vaccinated people will get sick, some will pass on the virus, and a very small number will die despite their shots. At a time when the infection rate has doubled, many remain unvaccinated and the delta variant is vastly more contagious than the original, it's important to recognize vaccines aren't flawless, medical experts said.

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I already had COVID-19. Should I get the vaccine?

People who have had COVID-19 "may be advised" to get the vaccine, "due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that re-infection with COVID-19 is possible," according to the CDC.

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I am vaccinated. Do I still need to wear a mask?

As of July, the CDC recommends that vaccinated Americans resume wearing masks indoors if they are in areas with high or substantial transmissibility of the COVID-19 virus. The guidance also recommends for people with underlying conditions wear masks, along with anyone living with vulnerable people. Teachers, school staff, students and visitors inside schools from kindergarten to 12th grade also fall under new guidance recommending universal mask-wearing.

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Is it legal for a business to even ask for proof that I'm vaccinated? Is that a HIPAA violation?

Currently, you don't have to flash your COVID-19 vaccine card in most businesses in order to shop or to get a table. However, businesses are generally free to require that customers show proof of vaccination, sometimes known as a “vaccine passport.” Legal experts have likened the requirement to a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. "A business can absolutely ask that question," whether a customer has been vaccinated, a health law and policy expert said. HIPAA is a law protecting patients from having their private health information shared by health care professionals without permission – and experts say it has no bearing on who can ask or answer questions about health status outside a health care setting.

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Does the COVID-19 vaccine change your DNA?

No, mRNA vaccines do not alter the DNA of those who receive them.

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Tests

How do I order free testing kits from the government?

Americans can now order free COVID-19 testing kits from the federal government. Americans should be able to order four kits per address. A credit card isn't needed to order the tests and there is no cost, unlike the insurance reimbursement program. Once ordered, tests are expected to be mailed within seven to 12 days.

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What kind of tests can I get?

Molecular PCR tests, often administered at clinics, doctors’ offices, hospitals or large-scale testing sites, are more sensitive and can detect traces of the virus over a longer period during the course of an infection. These tests often require medical oversight, typically deliver results in a day or two and are more expensive, often costing $100 or more per test. Rapid antigen tests can be taken at home, typically deliver results in about 15 minutes and don't require a lab. They're less expensive.

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What is an antigen test? What is a PCR test?

Most self-tests are rapid, antigen tests, which can detect the virus when a person is infectious and likely to pass it to others. These tests detect a viral protein on the surface of the coronavirus. A negative antigen test, however, should be "presumptive" in most cases, the CDC says, and may require additional confirmation. Molecular PCR tests are more sensitive and can detect traces of the virus over a longer period during the course of an infection.

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Why are home tests harder to find?

The two largest manufacturers, Abbott and Quidel, slowed production this spring as coronavirus cases dropped significantly. Home test shortages surfaced this summer when the delta variant increased cases and more people sought testing. Although the FDA has given emergency use authorization to more than a dozen home test manufacturers, home tests are still frequently sold out at major retailers.

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When is the best time to test for COVID-19 after symptoms start?

The CDC says if you develop symptoms, get tested immediately and isolate until you receive the results. If you do not develop symptoms, the CDC says to test at least five days after exposure.

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What if you're vaccinated and asymptomatic and test positive?

Even if you’re asymptomatic, health experts said, it’s important to isolate after testing positive for the coronavirus. If you test positive for the coronavirus and never develop symptoms, the CDC said, Day 0 is the day of your positive viral test and Day 1 is the first full day after your positive test. If you develop symptoms before the 10-day isolation period is over, the agency said, your period must start over with Day 0 being the first day of symptoms and Day 1 the first full day after symptoms develop.

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What if you're unvaccinated and test positive?

If you’re not feeling sick and have yet to test positive for the coronavirus, health experts urged unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Those who tested positive for the coronavirus and are unvaccinated should follow the same isolation rules as people who are fully vaccinated and infected. People who are unvaccinated are more at risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death, experts said, which means they should be extra vigilant of symptoms that may require emergency care.

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Masks

Which face mask is the most effective against COVID-19?

Health experts are urging the public to opt for three-ply surgical masks, KN95 or N95 masks, which offer more protection than cloth masks against the highly contagious variant.

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Why are the N95 and KN95 masks more effective than cloth masks?

Cloth masks are less effective at protecting the wearer because most have spaces known as voids near your nose and cheeks where tiny droplets can be inhaled. The pores in the fabric alone are generally not small enough to trap tiny aerosolized droplets. Respirators, like the N95 mask, are designed to achieve a close facial fit and efficient filtration of airborne particles.

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What are the best face masks for children?

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital recommends children wear the white, duck-bill N95 masks because cloth masks "do not provide the same level of protection and should not be used." The white duck-bill N-95 mask comes in 2 sizes, small and regular, and is shaped outwardly in the shape of a duck's mouth.

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Where can I get an N95 mask?

Finding and buying non-counterfeit N95 masks isn't necessarily as straightforward as purchasing cloth or surgical masks. With limited supplies early on, many manufacturers only offered N95 respirators in bulk for healthcare settings at the beginning of the pandemic. That said, finding and purchasing real N95 masks on the consumer market at a fair price is possible now. Here's what you should know about N95 and KN95 masks and where you can buy them online.

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How can I spot fake N95 or KN95 masks?

The first step is to turn to the CDC and analyze its charts of N95 and KN95 masks that the agency has tested, including the make, model number and filtration efficiency. Websites such as Fakespot help consumers weed out authentic products from counterfeits, including real and fake N95 masks.

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Can stores really require me to wear a face mask?

Yes. Local governments can decide what safety measures to impose on businesses, but individual businesses can institute further restrictions.

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Is it safe to wear face masks while working out?

Even before gyms started opening up, masks were a divisive topic among runners, hikers and walkers during lockdown. Inside the doors of the gym, risk is elevated, and so too is the debate over whether to wear a mask that could suction to the nose and mouth.

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Basics

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Congestion, runny nose, nausea and diarrhea are the four most recent symptoms the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has added to its growing list of potential signs of the novel coronavirus. The CDC previously said symptoms include chills, fever, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and a new loss of taste or smell. The agency now lists 11 symptoms on its website.

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How do I tell the difference between a cold, the flu or COVID?

The colder months haven’t stopped seasonal viruses like the flu from joining SARS-COV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – making it harder for Americans to know what they have when they wake up with the sniffles. Cold symptoms are generally less severe than COVID-19 or the flu, but breakthrough infections of COVID-19 in vaccinated people typically result in mild symptoms that are easy to confuse. Here's how to tell sniffles and chills apart.

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What is 'flurona'?

Flu + Coronavirus = Flurona, and health experts expect to see more of the flu-COVID dual infections amid rapidly rising flu and coronavirus cases, the latter being driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

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How long is someone contagious after they test positive for COVID-19?

The exact amount of time someone is contagious after a positive test can vary depending on a number of factors – such as whether they are symptomatic or how long after exposure they tested positive. The CDC says most transmission of the coronavirus occurs within one to two days before the onset of symptoms and two to three days after.

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If I test positive, how do I isolate?

Isolation is intended for people who have tested positive for COVID-19. People who isolate should stay at home and stay away from others inside their household. The CDC says a designated "sick room" and bathroom should be used for the infected person.

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If I am possibly exposed to COVID-19, how do I quarantine?

Quarantine is different from isolation because it is intended for people who may have had an exposure to COVID-19, the CDC says. If someone is exposed to COVID-19 but they are vaccinated and boosted, they do not need to remain at home for a quarantine period unless they develop symptoms, the CDC says. They should, however, wear a mask around others for 10 days. The CDC says people should remain at home for five days to quarantine if they are not vaccinated, boosted or it's been more than six months since receiving the Pfizer or Moderna shots or more than two months since the J&J shot.

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How long should I isolate after testing positive for coronavirus?

In general, the CDC recommends people isolate for at least five days after they test positive for COVID-19. If after day five their symptoms are improving or they have remained asymptomatic, they can leave isolation and wear a mask around others, the CDC says. Boosted and recently vaccinated people do not need to stay at home if they are possibly exposed to the coronavirus but should wear a mask for 10 days.

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What over-the-counter medication can I take if I test positive for COVID-19?

Dr. Anita Gupta, adjunct assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told USA TODAY individuals who test positive for COVID-19 can take popular pain-relief medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches and pains.

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Is coronavirus spread through the air?

The CDC has updated its website to warn that the coronavirus can spread through the air, something public health experts have been warning about for months but went unacknowledged by the agency until October 2020. The CDC says people can be exposed to the virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours, potentially infecting people who are farther than 6 feet away and even people who come into the area after an infected person has left.

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What should I do if I'm vaccinated, test positive and feel sick?

Regardless of vaccination status, health experts said, Americans should not travel if they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus. According to the CDC, people who test positive for the coronavirus and experience symptoms should: monitor their symptoms, stay in a room separate from other household members (if possible), use a separate bathroom (if possible), avoid contact with other members of the household and pets, wear a mask when around other people.

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How long does it take to recover from COVID-19?

Most people who test positive for COVID-19 recover in a few weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic. And health officials say most people are able to recover from the virus at home. But millions of Americans have taken months to recover from the COVID-19 or are still struggling with their illness. These “long haulers” may face a wide range of symptoms, including breathlessness, brain fog, pain and more.

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What is a long-hauler?

So-called 'long-haulers' are those who suffer through symptoms months after their initial COVID-19 diagnosis.

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What does coronavirus do to your body?

When the virus enters the body, it begins to attack. From infection, it takes approximately five to 12 days for symptoms to appear.

Here's everything to know about the infection process

Where did COVID-19 come from?

The chain of events that led to the worst pandemic in a century likely started with a tiny, insect-eating mammal with a mundane name, the intermediate horseshoe bat, experts say. In one year, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, infected 96 million people and killed 2 million, 400,000 of them in the USA. Despite a persistent conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a lab, perhaps an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, there’s no evidence to support the claim and plenty to counter it.

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Does COVID-19 just affect people who are old or already ill?

A dangerous fiction has made its way through social media and American politics, the idea that COVID-19 is really only a danger to the elderly or those with a severe, chronic illness. When the young and healthy underestimate the danger, it provides new opportunities for the virus to spread, especially at a time when many Americans have grown weary from months of wearing masks, canceling birthday parties and downsizing weddings and funerals, experts say.

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Can kids get COVID-19?

Yes, children can get coronavirus and COVID-19. A new study adds to growing evidence that children are not immune to COVID-19 and may even play a larger role in community spread than previously thought. Kids who seem healthy may be more contagious than sick adults, according to the study.

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Why do so many COVID-19 patients lose their sense of smell?

Researchers found that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, attacks the cells that support smell-detecting neurons but not the neurons themselves. That's good news because the loss of smell appears to be temporary.

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Does vaping or smoking matter when it comes to COVID-19?

A study has found that vaping is linked to an elevated risk of COVID-19 among teenagers and young adults, providing more evidence of the harmful effects of electronic cigarettes. Those who both vaped and traditionally smoked were nearly seven times more likely to become infected.

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What do I need if I or someone in my family gets COVID-19?

It's more important than ever to be prepared if someone you live with gets sick. These are the ten things you need at home in case you or a family member gets COVID-19.

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How do I care for someone with COVID-19?

Those who are infected and don’t require hospitalization are instructed to stay home, but that still leaves families and roommates vulnerable. So, what can one do to keep loved ones safe while recovering at home from COVID-19? And what can caregivers do to stay healthy? Here are some tips.

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Can dogs get coronavirus?

Buddy the German Shepherd was the first pet dog in the US to test positive for COVID-19. Buddy died in July.

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How many cases are there in the US and where I live?

We are tracking the coronavirus outbreaks across the US and in your state with daily updated maps, total cases and deaths.

See the maps

What is pandemic fatigue? How do I fight against it?

As the pandemic worsens, some grow tired of following restrictions. According to public health experts, “COVID fatigue” has contributed to the spike in positive cases in recent weeks. In place of socially distanced outdoor gatherings, people may be tempted to escape the cold and spend the winter months indoors with their loved ones. Some are growing tired of wearing masks and following certain guidelines. Finding healthy alternatives to activities we once took comfort in is crucial as we see an increase in cases, experts say.

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Travel

How do I stay safe if I go on vacation?

If you're planning a vacation during the pandemic, here is everything you need to know before you go, whether you're traveling by car or plane.

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Schools

How can parents protect their kids as schools reopen?

Here's what parents can do to ensure kids stay safe at school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Should my child wear a mask in school?

Amid mounting COVID-19 transmission before children returned to classrooms in fall 2021, the CDC called for mask-wearing in schools among students, staff and teachers to protect children who aren't eligible for vaccines.

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Help Others

How can I help others?

In times of crisis, a timeless quote from the late Fred Rogers tends to emerge again and again on social media: "Look for the helpers." Here's how to make an impact in your community with a few tangible actions.

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