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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
Protect Yourself
Stop the Spread of Coronavirus
When a Test Result is Positive
Vaccine Information
What is Tompkins County doing?
Resources & Reference Links

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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, which is know as SARS-CoV-2.

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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. 

Will the virus mutate to form new variants or strains?

Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Scientists monitor changes in the virus, including changes to the spikes on the surface of the virus. These studies are helping to understand how changes to the virus might affect how it spreads and what happens to people who are infected with it.

Currently, multiple COVID-19 variants are circulating globally. In the United Kingdom (UK), a new variant called B.1.1.7 has emerged with an unusually large number of mutations. This variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants. Currently, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death. This variant was first detected in September 2020 and is now highly prevalent in London and southeast England. It has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States and Canada.

The first reported cases of this strain was identified in New York in December 2020. As of January 13, 2021, 12 cases have been identified in NYS, including in Saratoga County. Scientists believe the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will provide protection against the UK variant, though the effectiveness rate may not be as high, and higher coverage rates needed. More information from the CDC website.

Source: CDC

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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.

Icon for hand hygieneAll 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.)

Washing with Soap & Water
  • Wet your hands with clean running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.
  • Scrub all surfaces of your hands, including the palms, backs, fingers, between your fingers, and under your nails. Keep scrubbing for 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
  • Rinse your hands under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
Using an Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer

Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Supervise young children when they use hand sanitizer to prevent swallowing alcohol, especially in schools and childcare facilities.

  • Apply. Put enough product on hands to cover all surfaces.
  • Rub hands together, until hands feel dry. This should take around 20 seconds.

Note: Do not rinse or wipe off the hand sanitizer before it’s dry; it may not work as well against germs.

Get the CDC fact sheet with this info; click here.

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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.

Icon for social distancing -- stay at least 6 feet apartWhat 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 is to stay at least 6-feet away from anyone who is not part of your immediate household. 6-feet is about 2 adult arm lengths. Your household are the people you live with and around everyday.
    • When you speak, cough, or sneeze, tiny droplets fly out of your mouth. These droplets can travel about 6-feet before they drop to the ground or land on a surface.
  • Avoid gathering in groups with others who are not members of your household. If you are at a gathering or in a group with people from outside your household, wear a face covering.
  • Click here for more about Social Distancing.

Icon for masks and face coveringsShould 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 more about face masks or cloth coverings

Should I go to events?

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

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Icon graphic for symptomsSymptoms

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 or chills
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or pressure on the chest that doesn't go away
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Experience confusion or trouble waking up
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • 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?

Testing is available at no cost to all Tompkins County residents, regardless of circumstances or reason, at the Cayuga Health Sampling Site, beginning 9/1/20. Appointment required. Click here for details.

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

  1. Has had a recent onset of symptoms listed above, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or body aches
  2. Individual has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days, by their own observation, or as informed through a contact investigation or potential public exposure
  3. Individual’s employer, school, or other organization has a testing program through a contract with Cayuga Health
  4. Individual is an essential worker
  5. Individual is a Tompkins County resident 
  6. Individual has an upcoming medical or surgical procedure

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

Where is testing conducted?

Cayuga Health System operates two sampling sites, a drive-through located in the back parking lot at The Shops at Ithaca Mall, and a walk-up located downtown at 412 N. Tioga St. Click here for an FAQ about the CHS Sampling Sites.

  • There is no cost for Tompkins County residents, or for non-residents who meet Sampling Center criteria
  • Testing at the Cayuga Health Sampling Sites for non-residents who do not meet the criteria is $99.
  • Appointments are required for all testing. Register here. Or call Cayuga Health Registration Line at 607-319-5708. 
  • Sampling Site FAQ.

Free testing is available at any NYS-run sampling sites. The closest NYS site to Tompkins County is at Binghamton University. Call the NYS COVID Hotline for other locations and to register: (888) 364-3065

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.

Additional testing sites are available in the greater Tompkins County area. To find sites, go to the NYS "Find a Test Site" page, and enter your ZIP code. Before you get tested, be sure you know whether or not there is a fee for the service

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.

Testing is free at all NYS-run sampling sites. An appointment is required. To find the closest site and preregister, call the NYS COVID Hotline, (888) 364-3065. The NYS Testing Site closet to Tompkins county is at the Binghamton University Events Center.

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When a Test Result is Positive

What does confirmed case mean?
  • An individual who has tested positive for the Coronavirus is a "confirmed case." The person may or may not have symptoms, but is presumed to be contagious.
  • When a confirmed case is identified, a contact investigation begins to determine who the case may have exposed before they were notified of their test results (see below).
  • Confirmed cases remain in isolation (away from others) until they are released from isolation by the Health Department
  • 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 an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 (a confirmed case).

  • An individual who is a confirmed case is interviewed by a public health nurse about places they have been, and asked to list people who they may have been in close contact with during the time they were infectious, usually about 2 days before they had symptoms or were tested.
  • Illustrations for Contact Tracing processClose contacts are notified by the Health Department that they may have been exposed to Coronavirus, because they were in a location with an individual who is positive for COVID-19 — a school, office, restaurant, home, or other indoor gathering place, for example.
    • All confirmed close contacts are instructed to quarantine for 14 days.

Who is a Close Contact?
  • When contact tracing the identified positive case will be asked whom they have had close contact with, so they can be notified that they were exposed to the virus. A close contact is defined by the CDC as someone who was:
    • within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 10 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.
    • The infectious period starts from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the positive case is isolated.
  • Note that someone is considered a close contact based on the total exposures added together. An infected person (positive case) may identify you as a close contact if they were with you a few times over the course of one day, for a few minutes each time, altogether adding up to 10 minutes or more.
    • It does not make any difference whether or not the infected person was wearing a cloth mask.
    • Source and more details on the CDC website.
How can the community help? 
  • Be transparent and cooperative with the nurse who calls. Any information you share with a public health nurse is confidential. This means that your personal and medical information will be kept private.

What information about confirmed cases is released to the public?
  • To protect the privacy of the individual, the Health Department cannot release any identifying information about a confirmed case.
  • 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.
  • Whether or not information about confirmed cases is released to the public does not change what the general public should do: adhere to social distancing, wear face coverings in public places and when with people who are not in your immedaite household, wash hands well and often, and monitor symptoms.

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Quarantine and Isolation

We follow NYS DOH guidance for timeframes. As of 12/29/20, the timeframe continues to be 10 days for isolation and is now 10 days for quarantine with four additional days of monitoring symptoms

Related: Guidelines for Out-of-State Travel

Icon image for quarantineWhat 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.

New York State has updated its Quarantine guidance. Tompkins County will release its guidance the week of 3/15. The NYS guidance is outlined in this PDF (3/10/21).

Where does quarantine take place?

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

What is the purpose of quarantine?

The purpose of quarantine is to monitor an individual 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 is quarantine?

Based on current NYS DOH guidance, the quarantine period for individuals potentially exposed to COVID-19 is 10 days if the individual reports no symptoms during the quarantine period. Following the 10-day period, individuals must continue to monitor themselves for symptoms for an additional four days. If symptoms develop during these days, the individual must immediately isolate themselves from others and contact the Health Department at 607-274-6604 or their primary care proivder to determine if testing is needed. The quarantine period starts from the last date of exposure to someone who tested positive, or from when the individual was in a place identified by the Health Department as having a higher risk for community spread. NYS DOH guidance from 12/26/2020 can be found in this document

When is quarantine necessary?
  • Any individual identified through contact tracing as someone who has been in contact with a known COVID-19 case, will be ordered into mandatory quarantine for 10 days from the last date of exposure to a known COVID-19 case.
    During this period, Health Department staff will contact the quarantined person daily to assess their health status. If the individual remains healthy and does not develop symptoms during the quarantine period, the Health Department will release them from quarantine at the end of the 10 day period. The individual will continue to monitor themselves for four additional days.
    • Exception: Those who have received both vaccine doses and at least two weeks have passed since the second shot are considered "Asymptomatic fully vaccinated individuals," and are no longer required to quarantine if within 90 days after the second shot. (Source, 2/11/21)
  • Any individual who enters New York State, as required according to the NYS Out-of-State Travel Guidelines. The individual is responsible for monitoring their health for symptoms, for getting tested if symptoms develop, and for completing the full 10 day quarantine period, or as stated in the guidelines.
What steps must be followed during quarantine?

The requirements to safely quarantine include:

  • Quarantined individuals must not be in public or otherwise leave the living quarters that have been identified as suitable for their quarantine.  
  • There must be a separate living area with a separate bathroom facility for each individual or family group. Access to a sink with soap, water, and paper towels is necessary. Cleaning supplies (e.g. household cleaning wipes, bleach) must be provided in any shared bathroom.
  • There must be a way to self-quarantine from household members in case fever or other symptoms develop. This should be in a separate room(s) with a separate door.
  • The person in quarantine must sleep in a separate bedroom from other household members.
  • If the individual develops symptoms, food must be delivered to the person’s room(s). Any person in quarantine must use kitchen facilities only when other household members are not in the room. Thorough cleaning/ disinfecting must be done by the quarantined person when they have finished in the area.  
  • A supply of face masks must be easily accessible for individuals to use if they become symptomatic.
  • Garbage must be bagged and left outside for routine pick up. Special handling is not required.
  • A system for monitoring temperature and symptoms must be in place so that quarantined individuals can be assessed in their separate living areas.
  • The primary health care provider or Health Department must be notified if the individual begins to experience more than mild symptoms and may require medical assistance.
  • The living area must be secure against unauthorized access.
Plan ahead when possible

Individuals who anticipate a mandatory or self-quarantine should consider the status of their quarantine site and of essential items:

  • Food and personal items (Grocery delivery service listings click here)
  • Cleaning and hygiene products
  • Cell phone and /or Internet access
  • A local person who can be contacted in case of urgent or emergency needs
Questions & Needs
  • For health related questions, or if there is a concern that the individual cannot adhere to the 10-day quarantine, please call the Tompkins County Health Department, 607-274-6604.
  • If you have questions or concerns related to meeting your personal needs, or obtaining food or other supplies while you are in quarantine, Call the Tompkins County 2-1-1 Help Line.
    • Dial 2-1-1 anytime, 24/7, to speak with call center staff. Or call 877-211-8667.
    • Text messaging: text your zip code to TXT211 or 898211. (Available Mon-Fri 9:00am–4:00pm.)
    • Live Chat: Click here from a computer. (Available Mon-Fri, 8:30am–5:00pm.)
    • 2-1-1 Tompkins/ Cortland website.
    • Food resources for families, households, individuals
  • NYSDOH Hotline and question form for general COVID-19 inquires: 1-888-364-3065 or Ask a Question.

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Icon -- Positive Cases Must IsolateWhat 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 10 days based on current NYS DOH 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.

Cleaning and disinfecting guidance

Thorough cleaning of frequently touched surfaces is an important component of isolation and quarantine. Examples include tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks. Use 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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COVID-19 Vaccine Information and Distribution

Vaccine icon -- Vaccines Protect Us

TCHD is preparing to manage vaccine distribution. TCHD has been planning and practicing the distribution of Medical Countermeasures (MCMs) during public health emergencies for many years. Click here for our vaccine information page.

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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, 2020 meeting. Updated versions are presented at each meeting of the Legislature. View and download below.

Slides for the June 1, 2021 Legislative meeting are shown in the frame above.
  — If your browser does not support frames, click to open the PDF (6 pages).
  — For the full year-to-date timeline, click here to open the PDF (218 pages, 5.9MB).

Highlights of Legislature meetings, 2020 click here | 2021 click here.

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NYS COVID-19 Updates and References

Local Resources

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