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> 2019 Novel Coronavirus FAQ

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

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.

Graphic image of question marksFAQ Pages



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?

Slow 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?

Symptoms and Testing
What are the symptoms and complications that COVID-19 can cause?
Testing: Who should be tested for COVID-19?
Testing: 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: 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:
Cleaning and Disinfecting: Recommended steps
Home and personal protection: How should I prepare my home and protect myself?
Employers and Local Businesses: How to Prepare?
Health Care Professionals What are health care professionals doing?
Travel: Should I cancel travel plans?

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?



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. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
  • There is also some evidence that the virus spreads through aerosols, which are droplets smaller than 5 micromters. This may allow the virus to be spread when people exhale during normal breathing, as well as through coughs and sneezes.

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 CDC Wash Your Hands poster. Credit Centers for Disease Control and PreventionThere is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, use everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including:

  • Avoid close 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?

All non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason are temporarily banned by New York State. See NYS on PAUSE for full information.

Should I wear a face mask?

Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a face mask.

  • CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask. to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Face masks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of face masks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).

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How can I help protect my community?

Image of a poster--click to downloadIn 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.

  • The emphasis is for communities to slow the spread of COVID-19 in an effort to minimize disruptions to daily life to the extent possible. Social distancing measures are the most important steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the community level, these include
    • Reduce the frequency of large gatherings (e.g., assemblies), and limit the number of attendees per gathering.
    • Alter schedules to reduce mixing (e.g., stagger recess, entry/dismissal times)
    • Limit inter-school interactions
    • Consider distance or e-learning in some settings
    • Read Cornell President Martha Pollack’s statement about the importance social distancing

What is social distancing?

Social distancing means keeping enough space between you and any other people. People should be at least 6-feet away from each other. People should not gather in groups of more that 2-3. People should not go to events or large gatherings, even outdoors. 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. See more about Social Distancing, click here.

What does it mean to be quarantined?
  • Quarantine means separating a healthy person or group of healthy people who have been exposed to a contagious disease away from others.
  • Quarantine occurs in a specific designated location (i.e. home) for the purpose of observing and monitoring for the development of symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
  • Basic essential daily living items like food, water, and prescribed medications are supplied to the person throughout the duration of the quarantine order.
  • Tompkins County Health Department nurses monitor health status for the 14-day period daily by phone asking for temperature once a day and other health questions. If a person in quarantine develops symptoms, the nurse will determine if the person should seek medical attention and will inform the individual of any precautions to protect others.
  • The person must stay quarantined in the specific designated location until the health department releases the individual. The person cannot leave the location to go to work, school, play, or other public places.
  • For COVID-19, the period of quarantine is 14 days from the last date of exposure, because 14 days is the longest incubation period seen for similar coronaviruses. Someone who has been released from COVID-19 quarantine is not considered a risk for spreading the virus to others because they have not developed illness during the incubation period.

What is self-quarantine?

People who have been exposed to the new coronavirus and who are at risk for coming down with COVID-19 might practice, or be asked to practice self-quarantine. It is recommend that self-quarantine last 14 days. This provides enough time for them to know whether or not they will become ill and be contagious to other people.

You might be asked to practice self-quarantine if you have recently returned from traveling to a part of the country or the world where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, if you have been someplace at the same time as someone else who has tested positive for the virus, or if you have knowingly been exposed to an infected person. Please follow public health officials guidance for whether you should self-quarantine.

Self-quarantine involves:

  • Using standard hygiene and washing hands frequently
  • Not sharing things like towels and utensils
  • Staying at home
  • Not having visitors
  • Staying at least 6 feet away from other people in your household
  • Monitor your health for any symptoms of cough, fever, and shortness of breath.
  • If you develop symptoms, seek testing through your health care provider, or at the Cayuga Health Sampling Site, at The Shops at Ithaca Mall. Preregister at this web page:

Once your quarantine period has ended, if you do not have symptoms, follow a health care provider's instructions on how to return to your normal routine. 

What is isolation?
  • Sick individuals are isolated from others to prevent spread of a communicable disease. The Health Department routinely uses isolation measures for communicable disease that are passed person-to-person (e.g., measles, mumps, and Tuberculosis).
  • If a quarantined individual develops symptoms while in quarantine, a Health Department community health nurse will determine if the person should seek medical attention and will inform everyone involved of any precautions to be taken.
  • Click Here for More Info: What you need to know about In-Home Isolation due to COVID-19

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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.*

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Read about COVID-19 Symptoms on the CDC website.

Should I be tested for COVID-19?

Tompkins County Residents are encouraged to get tested if they answer yes to either of the following questions:

  1. Have you had a recent onset of fever, cough, shortness of breath, or body aches?
  2. Have you been in the same room with a person confirmed positive with COVID-19 in the last 14 days?

To register to be tested at the drive-thru sampling site, call Cayuga Health Registration Line at 607-319-5708, or go online to

Where is testing conducted?

In Tompkins County, testing is being conducted through Cayuga Health, at their drive-thru 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.

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 a 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 would be sent out with directions about who to contact, via press releases, social media, and other channels to assure as wide a distribution as possible.
  • 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.

How should I prepare my home and protect myself?
  • Create a household action plan if a local outbreak occurs: refer to CDC Interim Guidance.
    • Talk to people who need to be in your plan
    • Plan ways to care for those who may be more at risk (older adults and people with underlying chronic medical conditions)
    • Get to know your neighbors
    • Identify local aid organizations
    • Create an emergency contact list
    • Choose a room in your home that can be used to separate sick household members from those who are healthy.
    • Learn about emergency operations plans at your child’s school or childcare facility.
    • Learn about your employer’s emergency operations plans (sick-leave, telework options, etc.)
    • Refer to TCHD’s Public Health Preparedness webpage.
    • Refer to Emergency Preparedness information and Build a Kit to prepare for any emergency.

How should Employers and Local Businesses Prepare?

New York State regulations have mandated that all non-essential businesses statewide close in-office personnel functions until further notice as part of New York State on PAUSE. Bars and restaurants are closed, but takeout can be ordered during the period of closure.

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What are Health Care Professionals doing?

TCHD is regularly sending NYS DOH guidance to health care providers and convening meetings about specific protocols and personal protection practices. Refer to CDC Guidance for Healthcare Professionals.

Should I cancel travel plans?

If you have upcoming travel, please refer to the CDC Travel Advisory webpage.

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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

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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)