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Penn Medicine answers common questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, including information about symptoms and risk factors, prevention and self-care, and COVID-19 testing. Learn how to protect yourself from the virus and read our mRNA vaccine technology page to learn more about how the COVID-19 vaccine was created.

About COVID-19

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 infection is a disease caused by a novel coronavirus that leads to a respiratory illness and can be spread from person to person. COVID-19 has now spread globally, including to the United States. While COVID-19 is a "new" disease, coronaviruses have been known and studied for many years at the Perelman School of Medicine and other academic centers of research.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms of this virus can be very similar to other seasonal respiratory infections like colds and influenza, or "the flu." Most commonly these include fever, muscle aches, cough, and difficulty breathing. In addition, patients may experience chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell.

Many people have the COVID-19 infection with no symptoms at all (asymptomatic infection). Most patients with COVID-19 have only mild flu-like and respiratory symptoms, which can be managed at home. However, some patients may develop severe pneumonia and breathing problems that require hospitalization.

What do I do if I have mild symptoms of COVID-19?

If you have milder symptoms like a fever or cough, you should get tested for COVID-19. While awaiting your results or after you test positive, stay home unless you need medical care.

Stay away from other people in your home as much as possible by remaining in one designated sick room and using a separate bathroom if you can. Wear a face mask if you must be around other people, including those inside your home.

Rest, hydrate and track your symptoms. If your symptoms become severe, seek emergency medical care.

What are the emergency symptoms of COVID-19 that require medical attention?

Symptoms of COVID-19 that require immediate emergency medical attention include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest that is persistent
  • Confusion
  • Trouble waking up or staying awake
  • Pale, gray, or bluish skin, lips or face

If you have any of these symptoms, please seek immediate care by calling 911 or visiting the nearest emergency room. There are other possible severe COVID symptoms. Please call your health care provider if you have other symptoms that are concerning you.

How long after COVID-19 exposure can you get symptoms?

According to the CDC, symptoms of COVID-19 can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after you are exposed to the virus. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, you should get tested.

View COVID-19 testing requirements, locations and hours.

Am I at risk for COVID-19?

At this time, COVID-19 is widespread throughout the United States, and it is essential to get vaccinated, wear a mask, and continue to practice social distancing to protect yourself and your family from coming into contact with the virus.

You may be particularly at risk for getting the virus if you have traveled to an area with widespread transmission or live in an area of the country with a particularly high number of cases. If you live in Pennsylvania, the state government updates information on the number of cases in Pennsylvania by county every day.

You should discuss with your primary care doctor if you are concerned about exposure to people with known COVID-19 infection, or if you have symptoms such as fever and cough or shortness of breath.

How is COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 is spread from person to person in a fashion similar to that of other respiratory viruses: You can get the virus from inhaling particles sprayed into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, especially if you are within six feet of an infected person. You can also get the virus from touching a surface that an infected person coughed or sneezed on and then transferring the virus to your body by touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

For people who have signs and symptoms of COVID-19 infection, testing is done through a swab of your nose and throat that is tested for evidence of the virus. Penn Medicine is performing this test in our laboratory and also sending testing to outside commercial labs for patients suspected of COVID-19 infection. Your health care provider will determine whether testing is appropriate for you based on your symptoms and exposure history.

What is the prognosis for people who get COVID-19?

Importantly, MOST people with COVID-19 do well and recover fully within a week or two of their illness. Even though there are no specific treatments or vaccines for the COVID-19 virus at this time, most people are cured by their own immune system and recover fully.

Older adults (especially over age 60) and those with chronic medical conditions (such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and lung disease) are at highest risk for getting pneumonia and requiring hospitalization from COVID-19. Patients with conditions that result in weak immune systems (from steroids, cancer drugs, organ or bone marrow transplants, etc.) may also be more susceptible to infection.

It is not known if pregnant women are at higher risk of problems from COVID-19; however, it is always important for pregnant women to protect themselves from illnesses.

Learn more about pregnancy, breastfeeding and the coronavirus.

How is COVID-19 treated?

Severe illness: For those who are very sick (most often due to low oxygen levels or lung damage from pneumonia), hospitalization is required. In the hospital, patients receive oxygen and other treatments to help their breathing as well as supportive care and very close monitoring. Penn Medicine is participating in several clinical trials of medications to fight SARS CoV2, including hydroxychloroqine, remdesivir and convalescent plasma.

Mild to moderate illness: Most people who are infected do not get low oxygen levels and are able to stay home and monitor themselves for improvement or worsening. Over-the-counter medicines can be used to manage symptoms. Infected persons can often have telephone check-ins with health providers for close monitoring.

Patients with the virus who are well enough to recover from home after they've been discharged, as well as patients who are confirmed or likely to have COVID-19 but not sick enough to need hospitalization, are supported from home using automated remote monitoring programs.

Can I recover at home from COVID-19?

Yes, if your symptoms are mild, you can likely recover from COVID-19 at home without medical care.

Learn what to do if you have or suspect you have COVID-19, including information on testing, isolation and emergency care.

How are patients with COVID-19 monitored at home?

Patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 may be supported from home by a team of Penn Medicine doctors and nurses using two remote monitoring programs.

These remote monitoring programs are used by patients with the virus who are well enough to recover from home after they've been discharged from Penn Medicine emergency departments and hospitals, as well as patients who are confirmed or likely to have COVID-19 but not sick enough to need hospitalization.

COVID Watch is an automated text messaging system that provides 24/7 clinical feedback and support. Patients enrolled in the program receive check-in messages every morning and afternoon. At any time, patients can also text the word "worse" to receive a call from a Penn Medicine clinician within 1 hour.

COVID Pulse is a program that allows patients to monitor their oxygen levels at home with a pulse oximeter device, also known as a "pulse ox." This device measures oxygen levels to help Penn Medicine clinicians know how much oxygen is in the patient's blood.

Prevention and Self-Care

What should I do if I think I have COVID-19?

If you think you might have COVID-19, there are steps you should take to help prevent the virus from spreading to others in your home and community, including:

  • Get tested for COVID-19 and act as if you have the virus until you receive a negative result
  • Stay away from others if you have symptoms
  • Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth while you are near others

Learn more about what to do if you have COVID-19 or suspect you have the virus.

How do I protect myself and others from COVID-19 infection?

The best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 is by getting vaccinated and boosted.

You can avoid being exposed to this virus through the following:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Practice "social distancing:" Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Stay at least six feet away from other people.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch objects and surfaces (counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets and bedside tables, light switches) using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Because infected people can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms, the CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

In addition, to help prevent the spread of the disease to others and prepare for possible infection:

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue (and then dispose of this) or your elbow.
  • Contact your health care provider to ask about getting an extra supply of your regular prescription medicines to have on hand if there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in the community and you need to stay home for a long period of time.
  • Be sure you have over-the-counter medicines and supplies (tissues, etc.) to treat fever and other symptoms. Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.
  • Have enough household items and groceries on hand so that you will be prepared to stay at home for a period of time.

If I have COVID-19, when can I end home isolation?

If you test positive for COVID-19, the CDC recommends that you stay home for five days, regardless of your vaccination status. If you have no or symptoms or your symptoms have resolved after five days, you can leave your house. You should continue to wear a mask around others for five additional days. If you have a fever, continue to stay home until your fever resolves.

How can I safely grocery shop?

Yes, you can safely go grocery shopping, but the best way to protect yourself and others is to limit exposure to the grocery store. This can be done by ordering delivery if that is possible, or reducing the number of shopping trips you take. Try to only go to the store every one or two weeks. Also try to limit the number of people who go on shopping trips. Leave your kids at home if you can as they like to touch surfaces and can carry the virus without showing symptoms.

Other safe practices are wiping down the handles of your cart with disinfectant wipes before use and leaving your phone in your pocket while in the store. Try to go back to a paper shopping list. If you bring reusable bags to the store you should wash them either with wipes or in the washing machine before using them again.

To pay, it is safest to use contactless pay, like Apple Pay. Credit cards and cash are safe as long as you are careful not to touch your face, and to disinfect your hands after you touch the pinpad.

The risk of going shopping is not the foods or packaging, but the people you encounter. However, you should always wash your hands before and after handling food. The CDC also recommends you wash your hands again after you unload your groceries, and clean kitchen surfaces like countertops, cabinet handles and light switches.

It is not necessary to sanitize your groceries or leave them outside after purchasing them. The FDA and CDC report that there is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Wash your fruits and vegetables like you would under normal circumstances.

The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies). It is also essential to practice social distancing and stand six feet away from everyone in the store. Try not to touch your face, use hand sanitizer and wash your hands as soon as possible.

How do I protect myself if I have been around someone who is infected with COVID-19?

The CDC has excellent advice to help prevent household members from getting infection if someone in the home has COVID-19. These include sleeping in separate rooms, using separate bathrooms if possible, frequent hand-washing and staying more than six feet away from the infected person.

Let your health care provider know right away if you are aware of having contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. Your provider can determine if you need testing and provide more education on how to prevent further risk of infection to you and to prevent spread of infection to others.

What does the coronavirus mean for me if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?

Individuals with COVID-19 can breastfeed if they wish to do so. They should:

  1. Practice respiratory hygiene during feeding, wearing a mask where available
  2. Wash hands before and after touching the baby
  3. Routinely clean and disinfect surfaces they have touched

If you're pregnant and concerned about how COVID-19 can affect your health and the health of your baby, we have put together additional information about how to protect yourself, the risks of COVID-19 to pregnant people and their babies, and more.

What does it mean to be immunocompromised during COVID-19?

Being immunocompromised means that your immune system's defenses are low, affecting its ability to fight off illness and infection, including COVID-19. Certain conditions like autoimmune diseases (i.e., lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Type 1 diabetes), your age, and a history of smoking could increase the chance of infection. Medical treatments, such as cancer treatments and organ and bone marrow transplants, can also weaken or suppress the immune system.

If you're immunocompromised, it's especially important to protect yourself by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, washing your hands, frequently disinfecting high-touch surface areas and practicing social distancing. Penn Medicine has also put many safety measures in place throughout our locations to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure to even our most vulnerable patients.

To learn more, we recommend reading:

Is it safe to travel?

Because of widespread community COVID-19 illness in some places, the CDC recommends Americans avoid all non-essential travel, both domestic and international. The CDC has detailed advice regarding travel.

If you must travel, take the following routine precautions:

  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Clean your hands often by washing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer — especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Make sure you are up-to-date with your vaccinations.

Is it safe to go on a cruise?

No, it is not safe to go on a cruise. Cruises put large numbers of people, often from countries around the world, in frequent and close contact with each other.

Sustained community spread of COVID-19 has been associated with several recent cruise events. In addition, those traveling by ship may be impacted by travel restrictions affecting their itineraries or ability to disembark, or may be subject to quarantine procedures implemented by the local authorities. 

Safety at Penn Medicine

Is it safe for me to go to my upcoming doctor's appointment?

We are taking extra steps to make sure all care environments and operating rooms are safe for patients and providers. We regularly and rigorously clean and disinfect waiting rooms and patient care areas; require surgical masks for all staff, patients and visitors; have made it easier to maximize physical distancing in our facilities; and implemented new processes such as contact-less check-in and check-out.

To learn more about our enhanced safety policies and how we're keeping our facilities clean, please watch the following videos:

What should I do to prepare to come in for an appointment or surgery?

One day before your appointment, we will send you an automated text or call to screen you for COVID-19 symptoms. If you have any symptoms that could be consistent with COVID-19 (these include fevers, chills, cough, loss of sense of taste or smell, muscle pain, headache, or sore throat), a Penn Medicine nurse will follow up with you to review your symptoms and determine next steps.

Please wear a surgical mask to your visit, procedure or surgery. We also recommend reviewing our visitation policy, which includes restricting others from accompanying patients to appointments.

Watch our video on what to expect at your upcoming visit:

Have all Penn Medicine employees been vaccinated against COVID-19?

The health and safety of both our patients and our staff is of the utmost importance. That's why we've required all employees, medical staff, and other health care personnel to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Is there someone I can talk to if I feel anxious or scared about my appointment or surgery?

If you feel anxious or have concerns about coming in for care, call our hotline at 833-983-1350 to speak with us. We also can connect you with a behavioral health specialist who can talk with you about your concerns.

What is Penn Medicine's visitation policy during COVID-19?

Currently, we have practices in place, including limiting visitors, to maximize the safety of all who enter our hospitals and facilities. Read our current visitation policy.

Scheduling Procedures and Timing

How is Penn Medicine prioritizing which types of patients should have surgery?

We are prioritizing patients for surgery based on their medical condition, their risk for disease progression, their decision to have surgery or procedure, and available resources.

Can I postpone my surgery?

It is important that you discuss whether to postpone your surgery with your doctor. You and your surgeon can make an informed decision together based on your specific medical condition.

I have a lab order from my physician. How long will it take to get done?

The Laboratory Patient Service Centers are prioritizing orders for patients who require urgent laboratory testing. If you have non-urgent lab testing orders, we ask that you postpone those orders. If you are not sure how long you can safely delay, please speak with your provider.

I need a radiology exam or procedure prior to my surgery. How do I get that done?

While some radiology locations offer walk-in visits, we recommend that all patients schedule an appointment. This will ensure that any pre-certification needed is complete before your visit. To schedule, visit our locations and hours page or call the appropriate number below and a representative will help you find a location and a time that's right for you:

COVID-19 Testing

Do I need to test negative for COVID-19 before I have my surgery? What happens if I test positive?

You must get a COVID test within three days of your procedure or surgery, regardless of your vaccination status. This policy applies to you unless your provider instructed you that you were exempt from this testing policy. 

How can I get tested for COVID-19?

At Penn Medicine, we provide COVID-19 testing to patients who are experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms, have been exposed to COVID-19 but are asymptomatic, or have an upcoming procedure or surgery. View Penn Medicine testing center types, locations and eligibility requirements. 

At-home tests also can help determine whether you have COVID-19. Every home in the U.S. can order up to four free at-⁠home COVID-⁠19 tests. Learn more at covidtests.gov.

What if I cannot get tested but have symptoms consistent with a COVID-19 infection?

Given the surge of COVID cases across the region due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant, testing sites may have limited availability.

If you cannot find a place to get tested, and do not have access to an at-home antigen test, you should assume your symptoms are likely to be from COVID-19.

Isolate in accordance with CDC guidance and talk to your healthcare provider.

Learn more about what to do if you think you may have COVID-19.

Are my doctors and nurses being screened and tested for COVID-19?

All staff, including physicians, surgeons and nurses, are being screened for COVID-19 symptoms and exposures before entering any of our facilities. Staff with any symptoms of COVID-19 are being tested, and staff with possible exposure to COVID-19 may require quarantine for a period of time prior to returning to work.

What is antibody testing? How do I get a COVID-19 antibody test?

CDC and partners are investigating to determine if you can get sick with COVID-19 more than once. At this time, we are not sure if you can become re-infected. Until we know more, continue to take steps to protect yourself and others.

Serology testing, or antibody testing, checks a sample of a person's blood to look for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. These antibodies are produced when someone has been infected, so a positive result from this test indicates that person was previously infected with the virus. We do not know yet if the antibodies that result from infection with SARS-CoV-2 can protect someone from reinfection with this virus and if they do, how long this protection will last.

At Penn Medicine, antibody testing is available for patients with specific clinical indications. If you have additional questions about whether you are eligible for antibody testing, please contact your regular medical provider.

To learn more, watch our videos on:

Post-Discharge Care

Will I need to come in for a follow-up, or can that be done with telemedicine?

Your doctor will let you know if you need an in-person visit or if you can have a post-surgical follow-up visit by telephone or video.

What if I need post-operative rehabilitation or physical therapy?

Your care team will work with you to identify the most appropriate post-operative plan, specific to your surgery and individual needs. Options may range from home with self-care or skilled-care (nursing & therapy) to more intensive rehabilitation services in a skilled nursing facility, acute rehabilitation hospital or specialty hospital.

If your post-surgery needs are limited to outpatient physical, occupational, or speech therapy, you will be able to coordinate those visits on your own. Services may be provided in person or virtually from home based on your specific needs and goals.

Do I need to self-quarantine after surgery?

Quarantine is only necessary if you have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 or if you have tested positive.

Insurance and Resources

Since I scheduled my appointment or surgery, I lost my job and no longer have health insurance (or my insurance changed). What should I do?

We offer programs to help you determine the best options for your unique financial situation. If you have limited or no health insurance, or are on a fixed or limited income, you are encouraged to contact our financial advocates by calling 215-662-3505 or emailing patientfinancialadvocacy@uphs.upenn.edu.

I am a Penn Medicine employee. What resources are available to support me through COVID-19?

We recognize the uncertainty and challenges that the evolving COVID-19 pandemic poses to you, your loved ones, and your work. Thank you for your continued service to ensure the health and safety of all our patients, their families, and our staff.

The Workforce Wellness Committee has put a number of resources in place to support you during this critical time. You can find information atPennMedicineTogether,* our wellness home for life on the front lines of COVID-19. We frequently add additional information as our response and services continue to evolve, so check back daily for more details.

*Please note, this link can only be viewed within the UPHS firewall on a workplace desktop or via VPN to uphold information security.

I am in need of additional assistance, including food, shelter or other life necessities. What resources are available to me?

Community Resource Connectsprovides information on community services and programs to support you and your family, including resources for food, transportation, housing and more.

The website was created by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in collaboration with Aunt Bertha to help people navigate and connect with social service programs. Penn Medicine is working collaboratively with CHOP to keep the site updated with resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By clicking the link above, you will be accessing a third-party site that is powered by Aunt Bertha, Inc. This site contains links to other websites that are not affiliated with Penn Medicine. Penn Medicine does not endorse third party websites and is not responsible for the privacy practices or content of such sites

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