Coronavirus (or, as doctors and scientists call it, COVID-19) has been part of everyone’s life since mid-March 2020, when most schools, businesses, and communities quickly changed how they operated to prevent the spread of the virus. Because the disease infected a large number of people all over the world, experts call this a pandemic.
For over a year, many kids attended school at least partly from their houses; their parents might’ve worked from home, too. This was all to avoid catching the virus from other people outside the home.
Lots of people helped their neighbors throughout the pandemic. First responders, like healthcare workers, police officers, and firefighters, kept people healthy and safe; essential workers such as grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and postal workers worked in-person to make sure other folks had what they needed to live.
Nearly 190 million people in the world have been infected by COVID-19, and more than four million people have died. But the good news is that the number of people getting the virus in the United States is going way down, thanks to testing, vaccines, and other preventative measures, like wearing masks and social distancing.
Here are answers to some questions you might still have about coronavirus.
So … what is COVID-19? And what’s a "coronavirus?"
The term "coronavirus" actually refers to a family of viruses that causes many different types of diseases, including the common cold. COVID-19 is a "novel coronavirus," which means it’s a new disease unfamiliar to scientists and doctors. Its name is actually a mash-up of three words: CO stands for "corona," which means "crown" in Latin, and the viruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface; VI stands for "virus"; and D is for "disease." The "19" comes from the year 2019, when the disease was first detected.
How did COVID-19 start?
Scientists don’t know the exact origin of COVID -19, and they might never have all the answers. But they do know that some diseases start in animals before spreading to humans. These types of diseases are called zoonotic (pronounced zoh-uh-NAH-tik). Cows, bats, and camels are among the animals that have spread diseases to humans in the past. The COVID-19 disease is also zoonotic, with the first cases popping up in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The affected humans were all connected to a nearby market that sold live animals.
How does someone catch COVID-19?
COVID-19 can be transmitted by little droplets from coughs or sneezes, which is why doctors say unvaccinated people should wear masks when they’re indoors or close to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there's no evidence that a dog, cat, or any other pet can transmit COVID-19. But more studies are needed to understand how COVID-19 could affect different types of animals.
How can I protect myself?
Kids older than 12 can now get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. For older kids who aren’t vaccinated, as well as kids 11 and younger, research shows that taking small steps—like staying six feet (about two arm lengths) from others, wearing face masks that cover the mouth and nose, washing hands often, and seeing friends outside—can make a big difference in stopping the spread of the virus. (Vaccines for kids under 12 are expected to be available later in 2021.)
OK, but what happens if I do get it?
Most people—including kids— who catch COVID-19 get better, and their illness is usually mild. But if you do catch COVID-19, you might have a dry cough, a fever, and shortness of breath. But just like when you’ve had a cold, the best treatment is to stay in bed—and away from anyone who might catch it from you. (Like your grandparents! Older people are more at risk for catching and getting sick from COVID-19.) You might also not even know you have it, so keep washing your hands and wearing a mask, just in case. Masks work best when everyone wears one.
Will it go away?
Researchers expect that as more people are vaccinated and become immune to COVID-19, the number of cases will continue to go down. Immunity to the virus means the body can fight it off and won’t spread it to another person. When enough people are immune to COVID-19 so that the illness is no longer a serious threat, that’s called herd immunity. Experts say that for herd immunity to work in a community, between 75 and 85 percent of people need to be vaccinated. Almost 60 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, depending on where you live: Some places are higher, and others are lower.
The majority of new cases in the United States are in unvaccinated people. They can also transmit the coronavirus to others, which is why the CDC recommends they still wear masks indoors and at crowded outdoor events.
What about school?
The latest guidelines from the CDC say that students and teachers who are fully vaccinated—meaning it’s been two weeks since their second COVID-19 shot—can be in class without masks. For students too young to get the vaccine, the recommendation is to keep doing what you’ve been doing in school: wear masks and social distance. Scientists say that keeping just three feet indoors in school is enough to keep kids safe.
This story has been updated with new information about vaccines for children.