Coronavirus: What you need to know

As the number of confirmed Covid-19 coronavirus cases increase, the Health Ministry is stressing good hygiene and to be aware of the symptoms. Here's what you need to know.

The Ministry of Health has confirmed a fifth person has tested positive for coronavirus.The fifth case is a woman in her 40s, who is the partner of the third case confirmed in New Zealand.

The family are believed to have caught the disease after a family member recently returned from Iran, where there is community spread of the disease. She was already in self-isolation and did not require hospital-level care.

The fourth case was a New Zealand citizen in his 30s, the partner of a woman who tested positive to Covid-19 after returning from northern Italy.

Professor Michael Baker from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington, is warning that the disruption caused by the Covid-19 virus could continue for up to two years, but New Zealand still has time to contain the virus.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand was in "containment" adding that at the point of a community outbreak there will be notices issued to reduce large public gatherings. "New Zealand is not at that point, but it always part of the planning to make sure you're ready to call that when it does."

Doctors are telling people who suspect they may have coronavirus to stay home and seek help over the phone rather than visit medical centres because entire clinics will have to close if people infect the medical staff.

What you need to know

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the new strain of coronavirus, named Covid-19, a global public health emergency.

The flu-like disease has infected more than 100,000 people and killed more than 3480 people worldwide.

The disease appears to be spreading more rapidly outside China, where the virus emerged and where 2902 have died so far. Spreading infections in Iran, Italy and South Korea have prompted travel restrictions in New Zealand. Deaths in Italy have risen to 336.

Evacuees from Wuhan and from the Diamond Princess cruise ship have undergone 14 days quarantine on arrival in New Zealand. New Zealand has banned foreign travellers arriving directly from mainland China, in an attempt to restrict an outbreak here. Residents and citizens arriving from Italy and South Korea have been asked to return only if they are capable of self-isolating.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

What is Covid-19?

The new flu-like disease is now called Covid-19 (sometimes referred to as novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV).

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which cause illnesses like the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

What are the symptoms?

Many people with the virus have symptoms similar to the flu, and having the symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have Covid-19. It's not certain how long symptoms take to appear after a person has been infected, but WHO assessments suggest it is 2-10 days.

Some people become infected but do not develop any symptoms or feel unwell. It is believed these people are not infectious, however.

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Dry coughing
  • Tiredness

Less common symptoms:

  • Aches and pains
  • Nasal congestion and/or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Diarrhoea

Severe symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing - this is a sign of possible pneumonia and requires immediate medical attention

The World Health Organisation's latest reports show 80 percent get only a mild illness, 14 percent experience more severe disease, and 5 percent become critically ill. It's not certain how long symptoms take to appear after a person has been infected, but WHO assessments suggest it is 2-10 days.

Who is it likely to infect?

Suggestions are that children are comparatively safe from Covid-19. The WHO reports a majority of those infected are adults, with just 2.1 percent of 44,672 patients in China with confirmed infection below the age of 20.

Early reports also suggest that illness is more severe for people 60 years and older, and in people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease).

In more severe cases, coronavirus can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, multiple organ failure and even death. So far the death rate appears to be between 1 and 2 percent, which is higher than for the flu.

How is coronavirus spread?

Coronavirus, like the flu, can spread from person to person, by droplets from someone who is infected.

Droplet-spread diseases can be spread by coughing and sneezing and close personal contact.

When an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, they may generate droplets containing the virus. These droplets are too large to stay in the air for long, so they quickly settle on surrounding surfaces.

You can also catch the disease by contact with an object or surface with viral particles on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, the ministry says.

WHO expert Dr Bruce Aylward said 10 percent of people who come in contact with an infected person contracts the virus.

A WHO report analysing about 50,000 cases from China has found the virus is unlikely to spread from people who are not showing symptoms.

How to avoid catching and spreading it

Good hygiene, regularly washing and thoroughly drying your hands, and other simple steps can help stop the spread, the Ministry of Health says.

These include avoiding close contact with people with cold- or flu-like illnesses and covering coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing.

Washing hands for at least 20 seconds with water and soap and drying them thoroughly, before eating or handling food, after using the toilet, after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose or wiping children's noses or after caring for sick people can help prevent spreading the disease.

Watch: the best handwashing technique

The Ministry of Health's public information campaign is focusing on handwashing as a simple way to protect yourself and your family.

People have also been warned to avoid travelling to some places - particularly mainland China and Iran. Check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's SafeTavel website for travel advisories or to register if you are going overseas.

What to do if you may have been exposed

People have been advised NOT to turn up to a doctor's office or hospital if they are showing symptoms, but to instead call the Healthline.

If you have returned anywhere from mainland China or if you may have been exposed to Covid-19, authorities want you to isolate yourself for 14 days.

The Ministry of Health says if you have the symptoms and have recently been to mainland China or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with the illness, phone the dedicated free Healthline number 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 from international SIMS).

What is the treatment?

There is no specific treatment for coronavirus, but medical care can treat most of the symptoms.

This could involve prescribing antiviral medication used to treat influenza or antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections.

What about a Covid-19 vaccine?

This is a new virus and there is currently no vaccine available. Researchers in many countries are working on developing one.

The annual influenza vaccine, usually available from April, does not protect against Covid-19. But health officials are encouraging people to get the vaccine this year, to help reduce stress on the health service if coronavirus cases started turning up at the same time as the winter flu season.

Should you wear a face mask?

Virologists are sceptical about the effectiveness of surgical face masks in stopping viruses carried in airborne droplets, but there is some evidence to suggest they can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says there is limited evidence of their effectiveness, but people should wear masks if they feel that that is protecting them or if they feel they might have symptoms of any illness.

The Ministry of Health holds a stockpile of 9 million P2 face masks/respirators, which are thicker than surgical masks and able to filter 95 percent of airborne particles.