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2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

 Graphic image of the coronavirus with FAQ text
THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING of our community is our top priority. Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) is working closely with community partners to prevent and respond to the evolving novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.


How it spreads
What is a novel coronavirus?
How does the virus spread?
How does it spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects?
Warm weather: Will warm weather stop the spread of COVID-19?
Community spread: What is community spread?
Who is more at risk?

Protect Yourself
How can I help protect myself? (Go here for a hand-washing. poster)
Hand Washing: What is the best way to wash my hands?
Events: Should I go to events?
Face masks: Should I wear a face mask?

Stop the Spread of Coronavirus
How can I help protect my community?
Social Distancing: How to be around other people
Quarantine: What does it mean to be quarantined by a public health nurse?
Self-Quarantine: How do I self-quarantine?
Isolation: What is isolation?
Cleaning and Disinfecting: Recommended steps and materials

Symptoms and Testing
What are the symptoms and complications that COVID-19 can cause?
  • Who should be tested for COVID-19?
  • Where is testing conducted?:
Insurance: What if I do not have health insurance?
Confirmed case: What does it mean when there is a confirmed case (test results are positive)?
Contact investigation (contact tracing): What is a contact investigation? What will we be told about people who tested positive?

How to prepare
Everyday: Take these everyday actions to prevent and slow the spread of disease

What is Tompkins County doing?
The Health Department
State of Emergency: What does it mean in Tompkins County?
Emergency Operations Center: What is an EOC?
EOC Timeline: Review the response steps from January forward.


Food Resources
Link opens the 211 website, then scroll down to Food Resources

Coronavirus image from the CDC

What is a novel coronavirus?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus.

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How It Spreads

How does the virus spread?

COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.

  • Between people who are near each other (within about 6 feet).
  • Through respiratory droplets that go into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or even speaks or sings. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
  • There is also mounting evidence that the virus spreads through aerosols, which are droplets smaller than 5 micromters. This may allow the virus to linger in the air, and spread when ventilation is poor.

How does it spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects?

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

Will warm weather stop the spread of COVID-19?

It is not yet known whether weather and temperature impact the spread of COVID-19. Some other viruses, like the common cold and flu, spread more during cold weather months, but it is still possible to become sick with these viruses during other months. At this time, it is not known whether warmer weather will slow the spread of COVID-19.

What is community spread?

Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including people who are not sure how or when they became infected. COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and continually in the community (“community spread”).

Who is more at risk?

80% of individuals infected with COVID-19 will have mild symptoms and fully recover. However, older adults and anyone with an underlying chronic medical condition may be at greater risk. This includes older adults, those who are immune-compromised, or have a chronic medical condition, especially heart or lung disease, and diabetes. For more information about additional steps that should be taken by those at higher risk for complications, visit the CDC webpage, People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19.

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How can I help protect myself?

Image of a poster--click to downloadThe best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. Use everyday hygiene actions to help stop the spread of respiratory diseases, including:

  • Avoid any contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash. If a tissue is not available, cover your cough or sneeze into your elbow.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Avoid handshakes and hugs, use an elbow bump instead
  • 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 readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
    • For more information about hand-washing., see the CDC Hand-washing website.

All About Washing Your Hands

Watch this great 3 minute video from the CDC to get a close look at why and how to wash your hands often.
May not display in all browsers.

Should I go to events?

Please refer to our Social Distancing page for the most recent updates.

Should I wear a face mask or face covering?

Yes, an Executive Order requires a face covering be worn in all public settings where proper physical distancing cannot be maintained. Click here for guidance on using face masks or cloth coverings

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How can I help protect my community?

In an ongoing effort to slow the spread of Coronavirus and COVID-19, residents should be familiar with and follow all guidance from the Tompkins County Health Department and NYS Department of Health. Social distancing measures are the most important steps to slow the spread of COVID-19.

What is social distancing?

Social distancing is a critical way to keep the virus from spreading from one person to another, especially for those at higher risk for becoming sick with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

  • Social distancing means stay at home and only be around members of your household, except if going out for essential needs. Stay away from any household member who is in quarantine.
  • When out in public for essential needs such as shopping for food or medications, stay at least 6-feet away from other people.
  • Do not gather in groups with others outside who are not members of your household. Do not go to events or gatherings, even outdoors.
  • Click here for more about Social Distancing, including tips for how to protect yourself when shopping.

What is quarantine?

Quarantine means separating a healthy person or group of healthy people away from others due to exposure to a contagious disease like COVID-19.

Where does quarantine take place?

Quarantine happens in a specific designated location like your home where you can maintain separation from others.

What is the purpose of quarantine?

The purpose of quarantine is to monitor an idiividual for the development of symptoms of contagious disease during its incubation period. Incubation goes from date of exposure to the onset of symptoms.

How long can I expect to be quarantined?

For COVID-19, the quarantine period is 14 days from the last date of exposure. 

What is the difference between “mandatory quarantine” and “self-quarantine”?

If you are identified as a contact—someone who has been in contact with a known COVID-19 case—the Health Department will order you into mandatory quarantine for 14 days from your last date of exposure to any known COVID-19 case. During this period, Health Department staff will contact the quarantined person daily to assess their health status. If you remain healthy and do not develop symptoms during the quarantine period, the Health Department will release you from quarantine at the end of the 14 day period.

If choose to get tested, but have not been identified as a contact and have no symptoms, you will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days after testing, and to continue self-quarantine even if your test result is negative. The Health Department staff will not monitor your health status daily, so to protect others it is your responsibility to track your health for symptoms, and complete the full quarantine period.

What steps must I follow during quarantine?
  • Stay at home for 14 days
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from other people in your household
  • Wear a cloth mask when less than 6 feet away from others
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
  • Disinfect touched surfaces frequently
  • Monitor yourself for any symptoms of cough, fever, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell
  • If you develop symptoms, go to be tested at the Cayuga Health Sampling Site. Preregister at:
  • NYS Travel Advisory information 

NYS Web page about quarantine

What is isolation?

Isolation means separating a sick person with a contagious disease like COVID-19 away from others.

Where does isolation take place?

Isolation is done in a specific designated location where you have your own bedroom and ideally your own bathroom. The Health Department will determine whether your home is appropriate for isolation and when needed, arrange for alternate temporary housing.

What is the purpose of isolation?

The purpose of isolation is to eliminate contagious disease exposure to others during the infectious period, which is time period when a person can give the disease to others.

How long can I expect to be isolated?

For COVID-19, the isolation period is determined by the Health Department based on the current NYSDOH and CDC guidelines.

What steps must I follow while in isolation?
  • Stay home separated from others in your own bedroom
  • Use a bathroom that only you use. If this is not possible, disinfect all bathroom touch surfaces after your use each time or use a commode in your bedroom
  • Have all meals and other needs—medicines, personal items—brought to your bedroom door
  • You cannot go to work, school, public places, or social gatherings
  • Visitors and non-household members are not allowed in your home, not even in rooms not near the isolation room
  • If you develop new symptoms or need medical care, call your primary care provider first. Do not go to the ER or Urgent Care without speaking to your primary care provider. In case of emergency, call 911 and state that you are under isolation for COVID-19.
  • Expect daily contact by Health Department staff throughout your isolation period.
  • Health Department staff will determine when you can be released from isolation.

Video: Home Isolation and Quarantine

Home isolation and quarantine from Tompkins County Government on Vimeo.

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Symptoms & Testing

What are the symptoms and complications that COVID-19 can cause?

Current symptoms reported for patients with COVID-19 have included mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death for confirmed coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases.

The following symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure, and may be early warning signs:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or pressure on the chest that doesn't go away
  • Experience confusion or trouble waking up
  • Bluish lips or face

This list is not all inclusive, so consult your health care provider about other symptoms that are severe or concerning. Read about COVID-19 Symptoms on the NYSDOH website, or on the CDC website.

Download poster from the CDC:
  • Letter-size English (5/20/20).
  • 11x17 size English (5/20/20).
  • Multiple languages.

Who should be tested for COVID-19?

Tompkins County residents are encouraged to get tested based on the following guidelines:

  1. Has had a recent onset of symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or body aches
  2. Has been in the same room with a person confirmed positive with COVID-19 in the last 14 days
  3. Was in a situation identified by a TCHD Health Advisory that recommends precautionary testing for individuals, such as at a retail store where a worker tested positive (see examples in recent press releases)  
  4. Is subject to a precautionary or mandatory quarantine
  5. Is a health care worker, first responder, or other essential worker who directly interacts with the public while working
  6. Is a worker where diagnostic testing is a requirement, request, or recommendation when returning to your workplace during Phased reopening. Review industry master guidance for testing requirements and recommendations. 
  7. Any individual who attended any of the recent protests across the state.
  8. As recommended by a primary care or other health care provider.

Additional information about testing is on the NYS Department of Health website, or this NYS Interim guidance.

Where is testing conducted?

For testing in Tompkins County, go to the Cayuga Health System drive-through Sampling Site, located in the parking lot at The Shops at Ithaca Mall. Please click here to for information about the Cayuga Health Sampling Site, how to register, and what to expect if you go. Or call Cayuga Health Registration Line at 607-319-5708.

You can also call your primary health care provider if you have symptoms or have been in a room with a person who tested positive. If you do not have a primary care provider, call Convenient Care at 607-274-4150. Always call before going to the office for medical evaluation.

What if I do not have health insurance?

NYS Governor Cuomo gave a directive requiring New York Insurers to waive the cost of COVID-19 testing.

To sign up for health insurance, call 607-273-8686 or book an appointment online with the Human Services Coalition Health Insurance Navigators

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What does it mean when there is a confirmed case?
  • An individual has tested positive for the virus. The person may or may not have symptoms, but is presumed to be contagious
  • A contact investigation begins to determine others who may have been exposed (see below)
  • The individual remains in isolation (away from others) until a medical professional releases them from isolation and the person is no longer contagious
  • For the general public, a positive case brings awareness that the virus is present in the community, but does not mean that everyone is at risk of exposure

What is contact tracing (contact investigation)?
  • The process of identifying anyone who may have come into contact with the individual who tested positive for COVID-19
  • An individual who is a confirmed case (test results are positive for Coronavirus) is interviewed by a public health nurse about places they have been, and asked to list people who may have been in close contact. Close contact is within about six feet of someone with COVID-19 for a long period of time or direct contact with infectious secretions of an individual, via cough, sneeze, or speaking.
  • The contacts are notified that they may have been exposed in a location with an individual who is positive for COVID-19 — a school, office, restaurant, or doctor's office, for example.
  • Watch this video about how a contact investigation at the TC Health Department works, explained by TCHD Community Health nurses.

Why information about individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 not released to the public?

  • To protect the privacy of the individual, the Health Department cannot release identifying information.
  • Anyone who may have been exposed to the confirmed case will be contacted directly by a public health nurse as part of the contact investigation.
  • If the confirmed case was at a large gathering or public location, public notice will be sent out via press releases, social media, and other channels to assure as wide a distribution as possible. The notice will include recommendations about what anyone who was at that place at the specified time(s) should do. Generally, the recommendation will be for anyone at risk of exposure to monitor symptoms, get tested, and self quarantine. Search our press releases for examples.
  • Sharing additional information about positive cases does not change what the general public should do: stay home and adhere to social distancing, and wash hands well and often.

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How to Prepare

Take these everyday actions to prevent and slow the spread of disease:
  • Stay home if you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (60-95% alcohol)
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoid handshakes and hugs, use an elbow bump instead
  • Regularly clean and disinfect surfaces and objects (including door knobs, phones, toilets)
  • Get the flu vaccination if you have not done so already

Recommended steps for cleaning and disinfecting

Community members can practice routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces (for example: tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks) with household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants that are appropriate for the surface, following label instructions.

Click here for our expanded Cleaning and Disinfecting section.


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What is Tompkins County doing?

What is the Health Department doing?

This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and TCHD will continue to implement guidance from the CDC and NYS DOH. TCHD is working closely with Tompkins County Administration, elected officials, and community partners, including school districts, Cornell University, Ithaca College, TC3, Cayuga Medical Center and other healthcare providers. The health and well-being of our community is our top priority. Refer to our website for updated information.

TCHD continues to be notified of travelers from affected areas returning to Tompkins County. Community health nurses are contacting, evaluating travel itineraries, and determining if quarantine is necessary for travelers. Nurses are assessing the living situation to ensure that it is appropriate or arranging for an alternative quarantine location. Anyone who is quarantined is monitored daily for the 14-day period.

Current status: TCHD will update numbers every afternoon on the Health Department website regarding those in quarantine, test results pending, and confirmed cases. The table is at the top of the TCHD homepage.

What does the State of Emergency mean in Tompkins County?
  • Allows officials to obtain and purchase goods and services quickly.
  • Assistance can be provided to municipalities and school districts.
  • County operations will continue unchanged unless otherwise advised.
  • This declaration does not impact travel in Tompkins County.
  • This declaration allows the County to use funding with less restriction.

What is an EOC (Emergency Operations Center)?
  • A central facility where a team of public health and County officials come together to do the following:
    • Monitor information
    • Prepare for response
    • Exchange information and communicate readily to coordinate the response
    • Make decisions quickly
    • Ensure continuity of operations
  • The physical EOC includes:
    • One central location
    • Necessary technology to assess and respond to a public health or other emergency

COVID-19 EOC Response Timeline

The County EOC communications team created a timeline, which was first presented to the county legislature at their Apr. 7 meeting. Updated versions are presented at each meeting of the Legislature. View and download below.

Open and download the PDF

Travel-Related Cases, Mar-Jun 2020 (7/7/20, N=168)
Bar graph image
Cases with relevant travel by month. 96% of travel-related cases are domestic travelers.
Source: Tompkins COunty Health Department

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