About coronaviruses and COVID-19

Last Updated: 12 Mar 2021 2:50pm

What are coronaviruses?

COVID-19 is caused by a new type of coronavirus called severe respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause illness in humans (like the common cold) and others cause illness in animals.

Rarely, coronaviruses that usually only affect animals change to infect and spread among humans. These new coronaviruses can cause severe disease in humans.

That is what happened with SAR-CoV-2. It started as a coronavirus that infected animals but changed to infect and spread among humans. This also happened with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in 2002; and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which emerged in 2012.

COVID-19 is still a new disease. Around the world, we are still learning about it.

How sick do you get with COVID-19?

Most people who get COVID-19 have flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat and runny nose, and recover easily at home.

Some people experience severe illness, including shortness of breath, and need hospital care.

Sadly, a small proportion of people die.

Older people and people with some underlying medical conditions are 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

Who is most at risk?

People aged 70 years and older are more likely to have severe illness from COVID-19.

Regardless of age, the risk of severe illness increases for people with two or more long-term (chronic) illnesses or conditions.

You are also at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 if you:

  • have had an organ transplant and are on immune suppressive therapy
  • have had a bone marrow transplant in the past two years
  • are on immune suppressive therapy for graft vs host disease
  • have had blood cancer in the past five years; this includes leukaemia, lymphoma or myelodysplastic syndrome
  • are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

You are at moderate risk of severe illness from COVID-19 if you have:

  • chronic kidney (renal) failure
  • heart disease (coronary heart disease or failure)
  • chronic lung disease, except mild or moderate asthma
  • had cancer in the past 12 months (year)
  • diabetes
  • severe obesity/overweight, with a body mass index of 40 kg/m2 or more
  • chronic liver disease
  • some neurological conditions such as stroke or dementia
  • some chronic inflammatory conditions and treatments
  • other primary or acquired immunodeficiency

Poorly controlled hypertension (high blood pressure) and smoking may also increase risk.

For more information refer to the Australian Government Department of Health's Advice for people at risk of coronavirus.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may also be at higher risk. For more information, go to the Australian Government Department of Health’s Advice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and remote communities.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of COVID-19 are:

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

COVID-19 can also cause the following symptoms, on their own or with other symptoms:

  • headaches
  • muscle and joint pain
  • nausea/feeling sick, vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue/extreme tiredness.

If you have any of these symptoms, phone the Public Health Hotline (1800 671 738) or your GP for advice on whether you should have a test for COVID-19.

If you get very sick or it gets hard to breathe, phone 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.

How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 spreads from person to person mostly through:

  • close contact with an infectious person (someone who has COVID-19)
  • 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.

Who should be tested?

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; these people are more likely to have COVID-19 than people without symptoms, and are more likely to pass the virus on
  • people at higher risk of having COVID-19, including people in quarantine (including close contacts) and people working in international arrivals and quarantine facilities
  • people who may be at risk in the same setting or community as an outbreak (including healthcare workers and aged care workers).

When COVID-19 is not spreading in the community, testing people without symptoms or higher risk of having COVID-19 is not an efficient or effective way to find rare 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 vaccine for COVID-19?

Information about COVID vaccination in Tasmania is available on the vaccination information page.