About coronaviruses and COVID-19

Last Updated: 27 Nov 2020 9:24am

What are coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause illness in humans and others cause illness in animals, such as bats, camels, and civets. Human coronaviruses generally cause mild illness, such as the common cold.

Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve to infect and spread among humans, causing severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which emerged in 2012.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a new strain of coronavirus that is causing disease in humans and spreading from person-to-person. The name of the disease is COVID-19.

What we know about COVID-19?

The current COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. We are still learning about how this new virus spreads and the disease it causes. We know:

  • the virus causes respiratory disease that can spread from person to person
  • most people experience mild flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath
  • some people experience severe illness and, sadly, a small proportion die
  • older people and people with underlying medical conditions seem to be more at risk of severe illness
  • there is no treatment for COVID-19, but medical care can treat most of the symptoms – antibiotics do not work on viruses
  • a vaccine is currently not available.

How does it spread?

The virus most likely spreads through:

  • close contact with an infectious person
  • contact with droplets from an infected person’s uncovered cough or sneeze (if you are within 1.5 metres or two large steps of an infected person)
  • touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs, sink taps and tables) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are:

  • fever (or signs of fever, including chills or night sweats)
  • runny nose
  • cough
  • sore/itchy throat
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of taste or smell.

COVID-19 can also present with the following symptoms that can occur on their own or combined with the other symptoms: headaches, muscle and joint pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and fatigue. If you are experiencing these symptoms you should consider a COVID-19 test as part of managing your illness. Call the Public Health Hotline (1800 671 738) or your GP for more information.

If you become very unwell or have difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

It can take up to 14 days for symptoms to show after a person has been infected.

For more information go to Testing for COVID-19.

Who is most at risk?

The risk of severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age and those who are 70 years and older have substantial risk. There are also some medical conditions that may increase risk:

  • People on immune suppressive therapy following organ transplant
  • People who have had a bone marrow transplant in the last 24 months or are on immune suppressive therapy for graft vs host disease
  • People with blood cancers such as leukaemia, lymphoma or myelodysplastic syndrome diagnosed within the last five years
  • Those having chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are considered to be at higher risk in public health emergencies. Specific advice is available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and remote communities.

You may be at risk of moderate illness if you have other chronic conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, cancer and kidney failure. For more information refer to the Australian Government Department of Health's Advice for people at risk of coronavirus.

Why not test people who don't have symptoms?

Testing people for COVID-19 is important to stop the spread of the disease in the community. Testing identifies people who have the virus, and isolating those people stops them passing it on.

To be most effective, the focus of testing in Australia – especially in areas where the virus is not spreading in the community – is on people who have any cold or flu-like symptoms, even mild. When COVID-19 is not spreading in the community, testing people without symptoms is not an efficient or effective way to find rare cases.

The main reason for targeting people with symptoms is that they are more likely to have COVID-19 than people without symptoms. People with symptoms are also more likely to pass the virus on to other people than those who don’t.

Sometimes testing is recommended for people who don’t have symptoms. For example, if there is an outbreak, people who may be at risk in the same setting or community (including healthcare workers and aged care workers) may be targeted for testing, along with contacts of confirmed cases.

Tasmania’s approach to testing people for COVID-19 is like the approach used interstate and is based on recommendations from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. That Committee is made up of Chief Health Officers from around Australia and is the main national expert committee advising on COVID-19 in Australia. That committee itself is advised by groups of national experts on communicable disease control and laboratory testing.

Is there a vaccination or proven treatment for COVID-19?

Read more about the progress of treatments and vaccines against COVID-19