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Your No-Panic Guide To The Coronavirus In LA

One very important way we can all combat fear is to get prepared.

(Illustration by Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM)

UPDATED: Mar. 18, 2020


If the speed and spread of the coronavirus pandemic has you deeply concerned, please know that we are right there with you.

And it was on a single day last week that President Trump banned travelers coming from Europe, Tom and Rita told the world they tested positive, the NBA suspended its season and the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Yes, that was all on the same day. Yes, that was just last week.

By the end of last week, Trump declared a national emergency, school districts started shutting down, all the sports were on hold and store shelves started looking pretty barren.

Our heads are spinning too.

One very important way we can all combat fear is to get prepared. That's what we are here to help you do. So here's our promise to you. We will:

  • Do our best to bring you the most recent and accurate information
  • Explain what's happened so far, using language that we hope you understand (but let us know if we are falling short).
  • Continue to update this comprehensive explainer as new information becomes available
  • Answer your questions

So here's what we know so far:

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THE NITTY GRITTY

A "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" was declared on Jan. 30, 2020 by the World Health Organization over an outbreak of a new, deadly, novel coronavirus which began in Wuhan City, China.

The virus was identified as SARS-CoV-2, which causes a disease called COVID-19 (which is an abbreviation of "coronavirus disease 2019").

As of mid-March, there were more than 4,000 deaths and over 110,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world. The vast majority of cases are located in China.

On Mar. 4, L.A. County declared a local and public emergency, and Governor Gavin Newsom made the call to declare an emergency for the state of California on the same day.

On Mar. 11, WHO made it official: COVID-19 is a pandemic.

You can track the global scope and spread with this map and list from WHO. And these U.S. numbers from the CDC are updated daily.

The map below also shows cumulative confirmed cases, deaths and recoveries. It's updated in near real-time throughout the day. Zoom out to see more of the world.

The data is maintained by Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering which pulls from: World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China, local media reports, local health departments, and the DXY

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WHAT IS SARS-CoV-2?

SARS-CoV-2 is in the family of coronavirus pathogens that usually cause short-lived illnesses.

They get their name because of how they look, which is spiny around the edges, like a crown. And some coronaviruses are scarier than others. Scientists are still trying to figure out how dangerous this new (or "novel") coronavirus is.

"Most people get infected with these viruses at some point in their lives," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms may include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and headache. But they can vary in severity. Thousands of people have died, but "other patients have had milder illness and been discharged," the CDC said.

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WHAT'S THE WORD FROM L.A. OFFICIALS?

The main message from local health officials is: don't panic. But L.A. is taking significant precautions.

A local public health emergency was declared by county officials on March 4.

New, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in L.A. County are being announced during regular press conferences, and on the public health department's website.

The first possible community spread case -- meaning the source of infection is unknown -- was announced at a press briefing on March 9. Since then, Public Health has been releasing the updatated number of cases likely due to community spread in subsequent briefings and press releases.

L.A. County announced its first death from COVID-19 on March 11.

On March 15, L.A. County officials said they were closing all offices to the public, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a moratorium on evictions, and an executive order banning dine-in restaurants and entertainment facilities went into effect at midnight.

L.A. County followed with a similar list of actions, closures and restrictions the following day, including strongly discouraging gatherings of more than 50 people.

Via Twitter/@MayorOfLA
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WHAT'S THE WORD FROM THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA?

On Sunday, March 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for far stricter guidelines in the state. He asked that all seniors and people with underlying conditions to be isolated at home as a precaution against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Newsom said those guidelines affect 5.3 million Californians. The new guidelines include:
  • Advising all people 65 or older to self-isolate at home
  • Bars, brew pubs and wineries should shut down
  • Restaurants should be at no more than 50% occupancy

Newsom said called wineries, bars and brewpubs "nonessential function" of the state. He said he believed restaurants should continue to operate far under capacity to serve those unable to cook at home.

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WHAT'S THE WORD FROM THE WHITE HOUSE?

Voluntary, nationwide guidelines were announced on March 16.

President Trump and the White House coronavirus task force asked Americans to close schools, avoid groups of more than 10 people, homeschool kids where possible, avoid discretionary travel, and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, and food courts.

Please keep in mind that while these are voluntary, some of the restrictions enacted by L.A. city and county officials are mandatory.

Trump said that the outbreak could last until July or August. No national quarantine is planned, but he said that hotspot quarantines and restricted domestic travel are being considered.

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HOW DOES IT SPREAD?

This photo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a microscopic view of a coronavirus. (CDC/Getty Images)

Coronaviruses generally jump from person to person on the droplets from coughs and sneezes.

The CDC's current best guess is that the incubation period for novel coronavirus -- that's the time from exposure to when symptoms first start showing up -- is somewhere between two and 14 days.

Federal health officials are stressing the importance of good hand hygiene.

Locally, the L.A. County Department of Public Health has guidance for travelers, health care workers, school administrators, colleges and universities, employers, parents of young kids, ships, congregate living, faith based organizations and more (and it's also stressing the importance of hand washing).

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HOW LONG DOES IT LIVE?

One study -- not yet peer reviewed -- has found that COVID-19 can live up to three hours in the air, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

That doesn't mean anyone has contracted the coronavirus through breathing it in the air or touching a contaminated surface, scientists involved in the study said.

The research does show that "aerosolized transmission" is "theoretically possible," study leader Neeltje van Doremalen of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the Associated Press.

A team from the National Institutes of Health, Princeton and UCLA conducted the study. Its findings were published Mar. 9 on a site where researchers can quickly share their work before it's published.

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WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF COVID-19?

Common symptoms can include: low-grade fever, body aches, coughing, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat.

Severe symptoms can include: high fever, severe cough, shortness of breath, persistent chest pain or pressure, confusion, bluish lips or face

These Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure. However, some people infected with the virus have no symptoms.

And there also may also be additional symptoms to what we've listed above.

The CDC and Harvard Health have additional details.

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WHAT DO I DO IF I THINK I MIGHT HAVE IT?

If you think you might have been exposed, or have COVID-19 symptoms, call your doctor for next steps. If you experience severe symptoms, get immediate medical attention.

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IF I HAD CORONAVIRUS CAN I GET IT AGAIN?

Here's the bad news. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, told us: "We don't have conclusive evidence on that."

She said that "in general you can be protected when you've had an infection, but not always. We're just going to have to wait for the researchers and the scientists to let us know what they're finding out about that."

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IS THERE A VACCINE?

No. Not yet anyway. But there are several companies working on varying approaches to a vaccine.

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SHOULD I NOT TAKE IBUPROFEN?

Maybe reach for the acetaminophen instead. At least for now.

There's currently no established link between ibuprofen and coronavirus complications, but there is a lot of conflicting information being circulated.

So, while scientists try to figure it out, the recommendation from the World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier is to take alternate medications.

The CDC has issued no coronavirus-related guidance regarding the use of anti-inflammatories, as of March 18.

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DO MASKS HELP?

They might. But they're not a for sure way of protecting yourself. The problem is that most surgical masks are loose-fitting and those pesky respiratory droplets can slide through the gaps. Still, some studies have shown that masks and respirators can reduce the risk of infection.

The N95 surgical mask is probably the most effective.

BUT, masks should be prioritized for health care workers, per the surgeon general.

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WHICH DISINFECTANTS CAN I USE AGAINST SARS-CoV-2?

The EPA released a list of products "qualified" for use against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Clorox Multi Surface Cleaner + Bleach is on the list. So is Lysol Brand Clean & Fresh and dozens of other consumer products.

Here's what the EPA says:

"Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate disinfectant product. Consumers using these disinfectants on an enveloped emerging virus should follow the directions for use on the product's master label, paying close attention to the contact time for the product on the treated surface (i.e., how long the disinfectant should remain on the surface)."

As far as keeping your hands virus-free, the CDC says hand-washing for at least 20 seconds is still your best bet. If that's not possible, it recommends using an "alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol."

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HOW ARE LOCAL HOSPITALS RESPONDING?

Officials are urging people to stay at home, even when they're sick, unless they believe they need hospital-level care. L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said on March 16 that the county is working to set up telemedicine services.

Meanwhile, local hospitals are preparing for a surge in patients.

  • LAC+USC Medical Center officials have been running emergency triage drills
  • Keck Hospital of USC is preparing to install temporary "triage" tents
  • Cedars-Sinai announced it'll be putting up tents in two locations
  • Kaiser Riverside has been hosting training refreshers on how to use protective equipment

But some healthcare workers are concerned for their safety, and don't think enough is being done to protect them. "Right now, there's a lack of supplies -- specifically protective equipment, PPE's -- so we're not feeling too safe because we still have to go home to our families," a healthcare worker at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center told us.

The U.S does have an $8 billion emergency medical stockpile that contains items such as anti-flu drugs, generic medical supplies like gloves and needles, and even quick-to-assemble medical centers complete with beds.

This stockpile is meant to fill gaps in supply chains or respond to sudden surges in demand caused by emergencies. It is not, however, intended to or big enough to replace private sector supply chains.

Our friends at ProPublica let us republish their analysis on how ready L.A. hospitals are, based on nine scenarios of the rate of spread over six, nine and 12 months.

Here's a look at how many hospital beds found would be available depending on what percentage of L.A.'s more than 10 million residents are affected. Keep in mind that 12% of residents here are over the age of 65. The experience in other countries has shown that elderly patients have significantly higher hospitalization and fatality rates from the coronavirus.

(Courtesy of ProPublica)

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HOW SCHOOLS ARE RESPONDING

On March 13, Los Angeles Unified School District canceled in-person classes, sending half a million kids home, effective Monday, March 16, with coursework moved online.

All 80 public school districts had also shuttered by that date.

LAUSD teachers received an email from Supt. Austin Beutner saying the district would be closed for two weeks "while we evaluate the appropriate path forward."

In the email, Beutner also announced a plan to open 40 family resource centers to provide weekday care for children, starting Wednesday, March 18, "from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with trained professionals."

LAUSD is the nation's second largest K-12 district and it's one of the largest employers in the region to suspend normal operations.

The closure announcement followed LAUSD's emergency declaration related to the coronavirus earlier in the week, and efforts by schools across the region to increase their cleaning efforts.

Long Beach Unified, the state's third largest district, has cancelled classes for more than 70,000 students for five weeks.

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SHOULD I STILL TRAVEL?

Legally, you can travel within the United States if you're already here -- the CDC has not issued any advisories or restrictions on domestic trips (that's not something they generally do).

But just because you can travel doesn't mean you should. Being in crowds and in areas where COVID-19 is spreading may increase your risk of exposure. You may also unknowingly put other people at risk during your travels. The CDC has a list of things to consider before you take that trip.

For international plans, the U.S. State Department wants you to "reconsider travel." On March 11, it issued a global Level 3 health advisory. That's the department's second-highest warning -- Level 4 is "do not travel."

If you do decide to go abroad, keep in mind that you may be subjected to a quarantine when you arrive, or when you return.

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WHAT ARE THE OFFICIAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PREPPING AT HOME?

Here's what the L.A. County Department of Public Health is recommending:

  • Have provisions that will last a few days (water, food, essential hygiene, etc.)
  • Get immunized against the flu. This will relieve what could be a highly stressed healthcare system
  • Stay home when you're sick (don't wait until you are VERY sick)
  • Make sure you are using a robust, regular cleaning schedule for frequently touched surfaces
  • Wash your hands frequently

At a press conference on March 4, Ferrer said she was recommending simple "social distancing" measures.

"Use verbal salutations in place of handshakes and hugs," Ferrer said. "Don't share utensils cups and linens. And whenever possible, try to keep six feet between you and other people that you don't know at large events."

It's also a good idea to have ibuprofen or acetaminophen on hand to help with fever. You can read more about what you should have on your shopping list with our guide here.

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ARE ALL EVENTS CANCELED IN CALIFORNIA?

Not all, but many (and counting).

Below is the official mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom's office, and the recommendations from state health officials and Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, as of Mar. 12 through the end of the month.

  • Events with 250 or more people should be canceled or postponed.

  • Smaller events should be canceled or postponed if the venue can't accommodate social distancing.

  • Avoid gatherings or places where you can't keep a 6-foot distance from other people.

  • Avoid gatherings or places where there will be 50 or more people.

  • Avoid gatherings or places where there will be 10 or more people if you are pregnant, immunocompromised or elderly.

L.A. County strongly discouraging gatherings of more than 50 people, during a press conference on March 16. Both the city and the county have enacted new closures and restrictions -- some mandatory.

And remember, President Trump now says 10 is the maximum number of people you should spend time with in person.

The goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19 by "flattening the curve" and not overwhelm the medical infrastructure.

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IS STREET SWEEPING STILL HAPPENING?

L.A.'s Department of Public Works is still operating street sweeping, but parking tickets are not being issued if you don't move your car.

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IS PUBLIC TRANSIT STILL OPERATIONAL?

As of March 18, all LADOT transit services are operational and on normal schedules, according to department officials. That includes DASH and Commuter Express buses, along with senior and on-demand shuttle services (but not Blue LA electric car-sharing). LADOT is evaluating the situation "day-to-day," spokesman Colin Sweeney told us.

L.A. Metro is also currently running regular weekday service for essential travel, "essential workers and those who need to access crucial resources." However, the prevailing messaging is: "If you can stay home, please do so."

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CAN I STILL RIDE AN ELECTRIC SCOOTER OR BIKE?

Lime is pulling its scooters off the streets and has suspended service across California.

Bird, Lyft and Jump previously said they've increased cleaning and disinfecting of their respective scooters and e-bikes. They're also encouraging riders to clean scooters and e-bikes handles with disinfecting wipes before and after riding.

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WHAT ARE L.A. EMPLOYEES DOING TO FLATTEN THE CURVE?

City and county leaders announced new rules for themselves at a press conference on March 12. The changes were framed as precautionary steps designed to protect the community and the most vulnerable among us.

New protocols include:

  • No more than 50 visitors in city buildings at a time

  • Events and conferences held on city property must have fewer than 50 people.

  • Non-essential travel by city and Los Angeles Sheriff's Department employees is canceled
  • City Hall is closed to all non-city employees

  • Hand-washing and sanitizing facilities available at all city properties

  • 911 operators will screen callers about COVID-19 exposure to help reduce the risk to first responders

  • County Emergency Operations Center is moving to Level 1 (which means it will be fully staffed with leaders and experts from every county department, as well as with outside experts)

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WHAT'S HAPPENING AT THE COURTS?

Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile announced March 16 that the largest unified trial court system in the United States will shut down for three days due to the coronavirus. The Superior Court was already scaling back, but this is a full stop.

  • The trial courts are scheduled to reopen March 20 for "essential or emergency matters."
  • All civil and criminal trials are suspended through April 16.
  • No jurors should report (and no additional prospective jurors will be summoned) for jury service until April 16.

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THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU CAN DO TO KEEP PEOPLE SAFE

  1. Stay home if you're sick (or think you might be, even if you only have mild symptoms).
  2. Wash your hands frequently.

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HOW ARE WE HELPING OUR HOMELESS NEIGHBORS?

Los Angeles is working to put at least 165 hand-washing stations near large encampments around the city. But there's no centralized city policy steering that effort. Rather, individual departments and elected members of the city council have moved to do this on their own with their own budgets.

Meanwhile, homelessness outreach workers and case managers are still interacting with people on the street.

Speaking confidentially to LAist for fear of losing their jobs, multiple people employed by government and nonprofit organizations expressed concerns about their potential for spreading the virus among the vulnerable population. But shutting down shelters, drop-in centers, food banks, and other resources, they said, would leave homeless people with even fewer resources than they currently have.

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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN QUARANTINE, ISOLATION, AND SOCIAL DISTANCING

All are actions designed to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease. Here's how they differ, according to the CDC and Harvard Health.

  • Quarantine: a separation for people who have a contagious disease, have symptoms consistent with a contagious disease, or were exposed to a contagious disease. A person's movements are restricted when they are quarantined.
  • Isolation: a less restrictive separation that keeps people who are sick away from people who are not sick.
  • Self-Isolation: a voluntary action to stay at home by people who are sick (or are likely to be sick) and are experiencing mild symptoms.
  • Self-Quarantine: a voluntary action to stay at home by people who may have been exposed but are not experiencing symptoms.
  • Social Distancing: keeping your distance from other people. The distance reduces the risk of breathing in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or in some cases, breathes. It can also mean cancelling events or gatherings.

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THE TEST

On March 13, President Trump announced at a news conference that millions of tests were expected to be available within a month, including at drive-thru test sites.

The same day, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it will fund two companies to develop 1-hour diagnostic tests: DiaSorin Molecular and QIAGEN. DiaSorin's test, the department says in a press release, could be ready in six weeks; QIAGEN's could be ready in 12 weeks.

The president also announced that Google was going to quickly develop a coronavirus screening website to direct people to testing locations.

However, according to a tweet that followed from Google Communications, it's Verily (a division of Google's parent company), not Google, that's building something. And the thing it's building is a tool to help triage people for COVID-19 testing in the Bay Area. The company said it was in the early stages of development.

On March 12, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, announced that L.A. County's lab tested 100 people during the previous week and a half.

There is a significant backlog -- "we're swamped," she said, and encouraged people to use commercial labs that have recently started offering tests. Commercial labs have tested 120 people so far in the county.

The county is in the process of submitting an application to the Food and Drug Administration for drive-thru testing.

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WHO SHOULD BE TESTED FOR CORONAVIRUS?

L.A. public health officials made a recommendation to local healthcare providers on March 11 that lab testing be restricted to people with "severe disease or an increased probability" based on exposure or travel history.

Providers have been encouraged by the L.A. Department of Health to use their checklist when evaluating people for COVID-19.

Here's the exact testing criteria -- a combination of "Clinical Features" and "Epidemiologic Risk Factors" -- for the L.A. County Department of Public Health Laboratory, as of March 11.

Fever *or* signs/symptoms of lower respiratory illness (e.g. cough, shortness of breath) AND Any person (including healthcare workers) who in the last 14 days before symptom onset has had close contact with a suspect of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient.

Fever *and* signs/symptoms of lower respiratory illness (e.g. cough, shortness of breath) AND Any healthcare worker without an alternative diagnosis (e.g., negative molecular respiratory panel)

Fever *and* signs/symptoms of a community-acquired lower respiratory illness (e.g. cough or shortness of breath) requiring hospitalization AND A history of travel from affected geographic areas* in the last 14 days before symptom onset *or* radiographic findings compatible with a viral pneumonia and no alternative diagnosis

Part of a cluster of 2 or more cases of an acute respiratory illness within a 72-hour period AND Congregate living setting with a large proportion of older adults and persons with comorbid medical conditions (e.g. skilled-nursing facility, senior assisted living facility, homeless shelters)

This evaluation and testing strategy, according to the notice, would be "reassessed and possibly revised," in the case of "widespread community transmission."

President Trump emphasized at the March 13 news conference that officials don't want people to take the test unless they're exhibiting symptoms.

The CDC says to contact your state health department with questions about testing.

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IF I'M AN ASYMPTOMATIC CORONAVIRUS CARRIER, HOW LONG AM I CONTAGIOUS?

You could be contagious for up to 14 days, according to Dr. Shruti Gohil, University of California Irvine Medical Center.

However, Gohil said, since asymptomatic carriers may not know when Day 1 was, it's "encouraging to know ... their ability to spread the disease is far less than those who are actively symptomatic."

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CAN MY JOB ASK ME TO STAY HOME AND NOT PAY ME?

Unless you have a collective bargaining agreement or contract, employers can change employees work hours without notice. You could also be asked to stay home if a government agency requires non-essential businesses to shut down temporarily.

If you've been asked to self-quarantine because you or a family member is sick, you should be entitled to use your sick time for at least part of it, though your employer cannot force you to do so.

The California Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) has more answers related to workplace laws in the age of coronavirus.

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CAN I GET UNEMPLOYMENT BECAUSE OF CORONAVIRUS?

In California, there are now expanded unemployment resources due to COVID-19. If you have to temporarily stop working, you can file a claim due to cut hours, unpaid leave, or termination due to the coronavirus. See EDD's website for available services.

There's also the possibility you might get a $1,000 check from the federal government. But that's TBD.

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IS IT SAFE TO TOUCH TAKEOUT & DELIVERY FOOD CONTAINERS?

"There is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food," according to the CDC said but the virus can live on surfaces. To reduce risk, go contact-less when getting meals delivered.

In whatever app you're using (or on the phone) ask your driver to leave your food outside your door. You might have to leave the message as a note.

Once you've brought it in, put the food on your own plates, throw out the packaging and wash your hands for 20 seconds before eating.

And tip well.

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IS THIS CORONAVIRUS LIKE SARS OR MERS?

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) are two members of the coronavirus family that tend to make people sicker. "About 3 or 4 out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died," according to the CDC. And SARS was responsible for a global outbreak in 2002-2003 that killed 774 people.

"The novel coronavirus is more genetically-related to SARS than MERS," said Dr. Messonnier.

But scientists don't know yet if novel coronavirus will act the same way as SARS or MERS; they're using information from both pathogens to guide their research.

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DID NOVEL CORONAVIRUS COME FROM... A BAT?

Dr. Messonnier said the novel coronavirus "does look like it may be somewhat similar to a bat coronavirus." But she said researchers will need to conduct more genetic sequencing before she can be confident of how the virus started.

Some researchers think pangolins might have transmitted the new coronavirus to humans. But we just don't know for sure yet.

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AND A LOT OF OTHER QUESTIONS, ANSWERED

What Does Coronavirus Do To Your Cells?

What Do I Need To Buy To Prep For Coronavirus?

Can The Coronavirus Be Transmitted On Paper, Coins, Or Mail?

What Do I Do If I Can't Find Any Hand Sanitizer?

How Much More Cautious Should I Be About Coronavirus If I Have An Underlying Condition?

Is It Safe To Take LA Metro In The Age Of Coronavirus?

What's The Cost Of A Coronavirus Test If I Have Medi-Cal?

So, When Is Coachella Now?

What Is LAX Doing To Protect People From Coronavirus?

How Should I Talk To Little Kids About Coronavirus?

Which Local Colleges Have Shifted To Online Classes Because Of Coronavirus?

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WHAT ELSE? SEND US MORE OF YOUR QUESTIONS.

Robert Garrova, Paul Glickman, Lisa Brenner, Megan Erwin, Brian Frank, Megan Garvey, Kyle Stokes, Adriene Hill, Mike Roe, Matt Tinoco, Stephanie Ritoper, Elly Yu, Libby Denkmann, and Elina Shatkin contributed to this story.

This story has been updated dozens of times as news continues to break on this national emergency. It was originally published on January 28, 2020.