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A man walks in the lobby at the MGM Grand on Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The novel coronavirus finally hit home for many on Wednesday as the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic, the NBA canceled its season and actor Tom Hanks announced he had contracted the virus.

Now, as the cases of the novel coronavirus creep higher in Nevada — 20 cases as of Friday evening — many people are sitting home wondering whether the tickle in their throat is a cold, the seasonal flu or coronavirus. And in the event that it might be the latter, what are you supposed to do about it?

Below, The Nevada Independent explores some commonly asked questions, based on interviews with Nevada’s health care community and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about the coronavirus, including what to do if you’re experiencing symptoms, who is able to get tested and what you should be doing.

This story will be updated as the Independent learns more about the latest recommendations from federal, state and local health officials.

What are the symptoms of the novel coronavirus?

The most common symptoms of coronavirus are fever, cough and shortness of breath. 

The CDC recommends you seek immediate medical attention if you develop any warning signs for COVID-19, which include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face.

If you aren’t showing symptoms and want to skip ahead to what preventative steps you should be taking, click here.

What should I do if I’m experiencing symptoms?

You should start by calling either your personal health care provider or, if you don’t have one, one of the help lines run by the Southern Nevada, Washoe County and Carson City health officials. Some patients also may be able to schedule a tele-health appointment with their health care provider.

Do not show up to the emergency room unless you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, as you could be putting health care workers and other patients at risk of infection.

The Southern Nevada Health District, the public health agency for Clark County, can be reached at (702) 759-4636 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Health officials are having conversations about expanding that hotline to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Washoe County Health District can be reached at (775) 328-2427 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Those needing help after hours in Washoe County should call 311. The health district is also encouraging people concerned they might have COVID-19 to fill out this link if they don’t want to wait on the phone.

Carson City Health and Human Services, which serves Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties, in addition to Carson City, can be reached at (775) 283-4789 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

On the call, you should be prepared to answer questions about your symptoms, recent travel history and any known contact with COVID-19 patients. Based on your answers to those questions, you will be instructed how to proceed — which could include any combination of quarantining at home while self-monitoring symptoms, being tested for other viruses such as influenza and strep throat, and being tested for COVID-19.

What should I do if I suspect I have COVID-19 but am told to stay home?

Restrict activities outside your home, unless it’s to receive medical care. That means don’t go to work, school or other public places, and you should also avoid using public transportation. 

It also means staying away from others as much as possible, such as confining yourself to a separate room and, ideally, using your own bathroom. The CDC also recommends that you limit contact with pets and other animals — though there are no reports of pets and animals falling ill from COVID-19 — until more is known about the virus.

The CDC has a full list of recommendations on what to do if you are sick with COVID-19 or suspect you have it here.

What does a COVID-19 test entail?

There are a couple of different types of samples your doctor can collect to test for COVID-19, but you can generally expect to have a swab taken through your nose, what’s known as a nasopharyngeal swab, or through your throat, an oropharyngeal swab.

Your doctor also may ask for a sputum, or phlegm, sample.

These tests are not available for purchase by the general public and first responders will not be equipped with them. The samples will only be collected by your health care provider.

How are health officials deciding who should be tested?

Right now, health officials are triaging who should be tested based on a number of risk factors. The latest guidance from the CDC recommends that doctors prioritize testing three groups:

  • Hospitalized patients with symptoms of COVID-19
  • Symptomatic individuals in high-risk groups, including older adults, those who are immunocompromised and those with chronic medical conditions (including diabetes, heart diseases chronic lung disease and chronic kidney disease)
  • Anyone, including health care workers, who have within 14 days of the onset of symptoms had close contact with a suspected or laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient or traveled to an affected area

Ultimately, it’s up to state and local health authorities, in consultation with doctors, to decide who should get tested.

But does that mean anyone can be tested?

The short answer is, in general, yes. But with a limited number of tests available, doctors are at least at this point prioritizing the most at-risk individuals. That means if you are young and healthy with no known travel history or exposure, your doctor may not recommend you for a COVID-19 test even though you have all the symptoms.

There are a few reasons for this. 

One, hospitalized patients with COVID-19 symptoms need to be prioritized for testing so health care workers can appropriately isolate and treat them without exposing themselves and other patients in the hospital to the virus. 

Two, elderly patients and those with underlying health conditions may experience more complications related to COVID-19 and therefore need to be identified early. 

And three, there’s a good chance that someone who has had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or recently traveled to an affected area and is showing flu-like symptoms has contracted the novel coronavirus. Those people also need to be identified and isolated.

Where are my samples going to be sent?

There are four entities currently able to test samples from Nevadans for COVID-19. Two of them are public health labs, the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Southern Nevada Public Health Laboratory in Las Vegas. The other two are commercial labs, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, which send samples out of state for testing.

Where your sample is sent will depend a lot on who collects it. UMC, the public hospital in Las Vegas, is sending all samples to the public health lab in Las Vegas. Southwest Medical, which runs a number of primary and urgent care clinics across Las Vegas, has a contract with Quest and is sending all its samples there.

What’s the testing capacity like right now?

The Nevada State Public Health Lab in Reno is able to run about 100 samples a day, at three or four hours per test. As of last week, the lab had the ability to run about 1,800 more tests. The lab’s director could not be reached for comment for a Friday for an update on the testing situation.

However, health officials in Washoe County, whose samples are run through the lab, said on Friday that the public health lab has “adequate testing capacity” with a “good supply” left and “plans for regular resupply.”

In Southern Nevada, health officials have said the public health lab is able to process about 60 samples a day but that it is operating “at capacity.” As of Friday, the lab had the ability to run about 1,000 more tests.

The state has asked for an additional 20,000 tests from the federal government, but that request has not yet been met.

LabCorp began testing on March 5 and is able to perform several thousand tests each day nationally. The company is in the process of adding new equipment and staff to create additional capacity.

Quest, which started testing on March 9, is in the process of scaling its capacity to increase the number of facilities at which it can perform the COVID-19 test. A spokeswoman for the lab said in an email that the company expects to be able to perform “tens of thousands of tests a week within the next six weeks” nationwide.

It’s important to note that multiple tests might be run per patient.

How long is it going to take me to get my results once tested?

The state’s two public health labs, at this point, are able to process samples faster than the two commercial labs. For one, samples only have to travel to Reno or Las Vegas for testing by the public health labs, while samples sent for processing by Quest and LabCorp must be flown out of state. In general, the two public health labs are able to process samples in a matter of hours, where it may take a few days to get results from Quest and LabCorp.

How much am I going to be charged if I need to be tested?

Most insurance companies have agreed to waive all co-pays associated with testing for COVID-19. However, health experts nationwide have noted that does not apply to doctor’s office, urgent care or emergency room visits associated with the test, so you should be sure to check your policy for the details of any copays, deductibles or cost sharing you will be responsible for paying.

The one exception: Any insurance plans regulated by the state — which include plans purchased on the state’s health insurance exchange and small group plans — are barred from charging patients for the cost of a doctor’s office, urgent care or emergency room visit when the purpose is to be tested for COVID-19 under an emergency regulation from Gov. Steve Sisolak.

I heard that there will soon be drive through testing in the U.S. When can we expect that?

Several states opened up some form of drive-through COVID-19 testing this week, and President Donald Trump announced at a news conference on Friday that the government will soon partner with private companies to set up drive-through testing in their parking lots. Companies that have said that they will host drive-through testing include Target, Walgreens, Walmart and CVS.

However, details about just how soon exactly that might begin remain scarce.

What should I do if I’m not experiencing symptoms?

If you’re healthy, there are a number of things you can do to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

For one, you should practice basic hand hygiene, which includes washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, particularly if you have been in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or using hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol. Hand sanitizer should only be used when soap and water are not readily available. 

You should also avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and abstain from handshakes.

Health officials statewide are also recommending that high-risk populations limit their interactions and that workplaces and businesses consider limiting travel and decreasing exposures. They have also recommended postponing large gatherings and non-essential events.

In general, health officials are encouraging people to engage in social distancing measures, which means staying away from congregate settings, such as workplaces and schools, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining at least six feet of distance from others when possible.

Though social distancing measures are often disruptive to daily life, they aim to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus so the health care system is able to handle the demand for services. 

If you are young or healthy, you are unlikely to fall seriously ill if you contract COVID-19. However, slowing the spread of the coronavirus will give the elderly and sick a better chance of getting the treatment they may need to survive the virus.

Tabitha Mueller, Shannon Miller and Joey Lovato contributed to this report.

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