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Coronavirus FAQ: what it is, how it spreads and who to call

Last Updated Aug 17, 2020 at 4:02 pm EDT

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels


Here’s a quick look at the basics of what you should know about the virus, what to do in case of suspected infection and how to protect yourself.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the name given to the current pandemic “coronavirus disease 2019”, caused by the recently discovered severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

SARS-CoV-2 is a novel strain of coronavirus — a family of viruses that can cause a range of illnesses associated with infection of the upper respiratory tract, from the common cold to pneumonia and bronchitis. The SARS outbreak in 2003 was also caused by a coronavirus.

SARS-CoV-2 was first documented in Wuhan, China.

The first presumptive case of infection in Ontario was identified on Jan. 25.

Latest number of cases on Ontario: COVID-19 in Ontario

How is this strain different?

SARS-CoV-2 possesses unique traits for a coronavirus, often associated with high communicability, including a delayed incubation period that can allow carriers to transmit the virus without realizing they are infected. As well, because much is still being learned about this strain, successful diagnostic and treatment methods are still being developed.

How does it spread?

The Government of Canada, along with the World Health Organization says COVID-19 is generally spread from one infected person to another. This can be through close contact — such as breathing in the infected person’s respiratory droplets (like coughing, sneezing, laughing or even singing). The virus can also be spread through handshakes, hugs and kisses.

Another route the virus can take to infect someone is through contaminated surfaces. For example, if you touch a surface that has the virus on it, then you were to touch your nose, eyes or mouth without washing your hands, you could become ill.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are usually flu-like and can range from mild to severe. They include fever, cough, sore throat, difficulty breathing, malaise, fatigue, chills and diarrhea.

Complications from COVID-19 can result in serious conditions like pneumonia or kidney failure and in some cases, death.

The Ontario government has a self-assessment tool available online.

Can COVID-19 be treated?

There is no singular treatment for coronaviruses and very few if any vaccines that protect against them. Most people with common human coronavirus illnesses recover on their own.

To manage symptoms, the government recommends taking the same measures as you would with a common cold: drink plenty of fluids, get lots of rest and sleep as much as possible and try using a humidifier or take a hot shower to help with a sore throat and cough.


Who to call if you think you have the virus

Unrelated to travel:

If you develop symptoms of COVID-19, call Telehealth Ontario for medical advice at 1-866-797-0000 for medical advice. You can also contact your local public health unit. Click here to find a public health unit close to you: Public Health Units.

Be sure to tell them your symptoms and travel history including any countries you visited.

Online self-assessment tool

The Ontario government has set up an online self-assessment tool here.

The province is urging people to use this first before visiting an assessment centre in order to cut down on volume and ensure those who are most at risk are getting tested.

Public health COVID-19 test results hotline

Toronto Public Health has a COVID-19 test results hotline should you be tested for the illness.

You can call 416-338-7600 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Travelling during the pandemic:

  • It is the law to self-quarantine for 14 days if you are returning from travel outside of Canada, even if you have no symptoms.
  • If you become sick while travelling or after you get back, avoid contact with others and call Telehealth or contact your local public health unit. Tell them your symptoms, where you have been travelling or living and if you had direct contact with animals or with a sick person.
  • If you feel sick during your flight or upon landing, tell a flight attendant or a Canada border services agent.
  • If your symptoms feel worse than a common cold and you have been travelling within 14 days of when your symptoms began, once again, call Telehealth or contact your local public health unit and be sure to reveal your symptoms and travel history.
  • Staying home and limiting your contact with others will help prevent further spread.
  • The World Health Organization says COVID-19 is now present in most countries around the globe. This interactive dashboard has data on the rates of infection in most countries.

How to protect yourself

It is essential to take some basic, everyday steps to protect yourself and prevent the spread of illness. Medical experts recommend people observe social distancing guidelines, wear a non-medical mask in public and wash your hands with soap and water. Approved alcohol-based sanitizers also work when handwashing is not possible.

Watch the video below for a tutorial on how to properly wash and disinfect your hands.

Other ways you can protect yourself and others include:

  • Wear a non-medical mask when proper social distancing is not possible. In many jurisdictions across Canada, this is the law (including Toronto).
  • Covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze – use your elbow and cough or sneeze into your sleeve.
  • Practice social distancing in all public areas
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Limit contact with common surfaces as much as possible
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick
  • Stay home if you are sick


For a comprehensive list on how to protect yourself: How to protect yourself and others from infection as COVID-19 cases increase

For more frequently asked questions answered by an emergency room physician who worked through the SARS crisis: FAQ: your coronavirus questions answered