Page updated: Friday, April 3, 2020 

The Virus and Its Symptoms

What is coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a new virus called SARS-CoV-2. The most common symptoms of the disease are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Most people with COVID-19 will have mild disease but some people will get sicker and may need to be hospitalized.

How severe is COVID-19?

The vast majority of people with novel coronavirus infection do not require medical care or hospitalization. A much smaller percentage of people get severely ill with respiratory problems like pneumonia. People most at risk for severe illness are:

  • People older than 60 years
  • People with chronic medical conditions
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • Pregnant people

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of coronavirus may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Can people spread the virus before they develop symptoms?

Often, with most respiratory viruses, people are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest), but there is some indication of spread by individuals who are not exhibiting typical symptoms.

COVID-19 in Whatcom County

What is the current situation in Washington and Whatcom County?

  • COVID-19 is spreading in Whatcom County, with over 100 confirmed cases to date. We expect the case count to continue to rise as testing becomes more widely available.
  • Although most of the cases will be mild or moderate, the infection can cause serious illness and there is a potential for many people to become ill at the same time and thereby overwhelm our healthcare system. If that happens, people requiring care may not be able to get it when they need it. Every Whatcom County resident has a responsibility to each other to make sure our community collectively lessens the impact of this disease by slowing down the rate of transmission.
  • This is a quickly changing situation. Sign up to receive Public Health News by navigating to News Flash, Health-Public Health News on our website and subscribe to updates from the Whatcom Unified Command Website.

What is the Governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy Order?

On April 2, Governor Jay Inslee extended the Stay Home—Stay Healthy order until May 4. The order requires every Washingtonian to stay at home, except for people:

What’s the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) situation in Whatcom County? Is there enough PPE for medical workers?

Whatcom Unified Command uses a set of priority criteria based on emerging response needs in conjunction with state health officer guidelines. The requests are prioritized to ensure that our health care workers, emergency response personnel, long term health care facilities (with confirmed cases of COVID-19), and other health care facilities (with confirmed cases of COVID-19) have their requests filled first. As those requests are completed, all other resource requests are analyzed and filled as they are able. The priority criteria can change often as it is based on emerging response needs.

What is Whatcom County doing to support the homeless population? 

  • On March 16, Whatcom County received $905,821 in funding from the Washington State Department of Commerce to be used for emergency housing necessary to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. These funds are for things such as:
    • Creating isolation and quarantine housing
    • Creating additional shelter capacity to replace shelter capacity lost when social distancing was increased
    • Increasing sanitation in existing homeless housing
    • Other costs associated with addressing the public health needs of people experiencing homelessness or displaced from their former housing due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
    • Most of these funds are now committed to ensuring that the relocation of the Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center and development of new isolation and quarantine facilities do not interfere with their ability to safely provide crucial emergency shelter services for their guests.
  • On March 20, the Drop-In Center moved to Bellingham High School to address social distancing concerns. Bellingham High School offers significantly more square footage than the DIC, where mats can be placed six feet apart and daytime socializing can be six feet apart. Guests are provided with three meals each day, and additional security has been added to keep them safe while staying at the high school.
  • Whatcom Unified Command is working to identify at least one facility that will enable isolation and quarantine for those experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak. Unified Command is also working to find appropriate personnel to oversee and provide services, including medical oversight of those in isolation.
  • Additional funding has been added for the use of motel rooms to provide shelter for families that would otherwise be sleeping in their cars or outside.
  • Additional funding has been provided to non-profit housing agencies that will enable them to increase the amount of rental assistance they can provide during this crisis and prevent more households from becoming homeless.
  • Many non-profit housing agencies have expanded their services as part of the response to our community’s urgent housing and support needs. If you are able to support these agencies, contributions can be made directly though their websites.


Should I get tested? Who should get tested?

Testing availability is still very limited in our area. Not everyone needs to be tested.   

  • The majority of infections with novel coronavirus are mild and resolve without the need for supportive treatment. 
  • You can safely forego testing if you are able to manage your symptoms at home. 
  • Your healthcare provider will determine whether or not you need to be tested. 
  • There currently are no specific medications to treat COVID-19. Whether you test positive or negative, your healthcare provider’s advice for managing the symptoms will be the same. 

We need to preserve testing for those who most need it. This includes:

  •  Healthcare workers.
  •  Patients in other public safety occupations (e.g., law enforcement, fire fighter, EMS)
  •  Patients involved in an illness cluster in a facility or institution (e.g., healthcare, school, corrections, shelters)
  •  Patients with severe lower respiratory illness
  •  Patients older than 60 years
  •  Patients with underlying medical conditions
  •  Pregnant women
  •  Patients with worsening symptoms

What if I am in a high risk group and want to get tested?

  • Generally, it is not recommended that people be tested unless they have symptoms of COVID-19. 
  • If you have symptoms or other concerns, call your healthcare provider to discuss whether or not you should be tested for COVID-19.
  • Not all healthcare providers are able to test for COVID-19. If your healthcare provider says you should be tested for COVID-19 but they are not able to provide the test, they can call the health department. We will work with them to find a place for you to get tested.
  • The health department does not routinely test people for COVID-19. Our offices are not designed for routine clinical services or equipped with the supplies for testing on-site.

Insurance Coverage and Costs

I’m worried about costs, how much does testing cost if I do/don’t have insurance?

If you do not have insurance:

  • The Washington Health Benefits Exchange has a special enrollment period right now. You can visit the Health Benefits Exchange website or call 1-855-923-4633; TTY: 1-855-627-9604 for more information.
  • Call Unity Care NW’s Enrollment Office at 360-788-4633 to see what insurance you may qualify for. 

If you do have insurance: 

  • While not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19, the good news is that testing is free. Insurance companies are required to waive co-pays and deductibles for anyone requiring testing for COVID-19. More information can be found on the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner’s website.
  • Most health insurance plans will cover testing and treatment for medically-necessary services related to COVID-19. The Office of Insurance Commissioner has ordered all health plans regulated by this office to waive copays and deductibles for people requiring testing ( for COVID-19. If you are concerned about whether or not you should be tested, read the guidance from the Department of Health and call your providers first. Copays and deductibles will still apply if you need treatment.


At this time, there is no treatment for COVID-19.

  • We understand that many community members are worried trying to find ways to treat or prevent COVID-19. It’s important to know that there is currently no treatment of COVID-19. As a community, the most effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home and to limit contact with others.
    • The best prevention steps for individuals are to stay home when you’re sick, cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue, wash your hands often with soap and water, and clean frequently touched surfaces and objects. Getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids, eating healthy foods, and managing your stress may help you prevent getting COVID-19 and recover from it if you do.
  • Never make medicine from household products. Ingesting household products not intended for human consumption is harmful and can be deadly.
  • Always follow guidance from a medical professional. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, stay home and call your doctor. If you are having an emergency, call 911 and let them know you have symptoms of COVID-19.
    • The symptoms of COVID-19 include:
      • Shortness of breath
      • Cough
      • Fever
    • More information on what to do if you are sick is available from the CDC.


I’m afraid I might have been exposed, what should I do?

You generally need to be in close contact with a sick person to get infected. Close contact includes:  

  • Living in the same household as a sick person with COVID-19,  
  • Caring for a sick person with COVID-19,  
  • Being within 6 feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for about 10 minutes,OR  
  • Being in direct contact with secretions from a sick person with COVID-19 (e.g., being coughed on, kissing, sharing utensils, etc.).

What should I do if I was in close contact with someone with COVID-19 while they were ill but I am not sick? 

You should monitor your health for fever, cough and shortness of breath during the 14 days after the last day you were in close contact with the sick person with COVID-19. You should not go to work or school, and should avoid public places for 14 days.

  • Our disease investigators are reaching out to anyone who was likely to be in close contact with any confirmed case.
  • If you were in close contact (within 6 feet for at least 10 minutes) with someone with lab-confirmed COVID-19 during their illness, follow the DOH guidelines (PDF).
  • If you have not been contacted by public health, we suggest you take the standard precautions that are recommended to all community members, including:
    • Wash your hands frequently.
    • Don’t touch your nose, mouth or eyes.
    • Sanitize frequently touched surfaces that might be touched by others with a sanitizer effective against coronaviruses.
    • Fully cover any coughs or sneezes so that no droplets escape.
    • Avoid large crowds and gatherings, or being within 6 feet of people for longer than 10 minutes.
    • Take particular care to protect people 60 years and older, people with underlying conditions and pregnant people. 
    • Preserve our health care resources for those who most need them by staying home if symptoms are mild and can be managed at home.
    • If sick, stay home for 7 days or until 3 days after symptoms have gone away, whichever is longer (minimum of 7 days).

What should I do if I’m sick?

If you are sick and have symptoms of cough, shortness of breath, and fever, stay home except to get medical care.

  • If you are sick and have mild symptoms, stay home and take care of yourself as you would for a cold or flu. Stay home away from others until 72 hours after the fever is gone and symptoms are better AND it has been seven days since the start of symptoms.
  • If you have severe symptoms and need medical care, call ahead to your regular provider before going into a clinic or other health care facility.
  • Do not go to the emergency room. Emergency rooms need to be able to serve those with the most critical needs.
  • If you need emergency medical care, call 9-1-1.

What should I do if I was in close contact with someone with COVID-19 and get sick? 

If you get sick with fever, cough or shortness of breath (even if your symptoms are very mild), you likely have COVID-19. 

  • You should isolate yourself at home and away from other people. 
  • If you do not have a high-risk condition but want medical advice, call your healthcare provider and tell them you were exposed to someone with COVID-19. Your healthcare provider can help you decide if you need to be evaluated in person or tested.

If you have conditions that may increase your risk for a serious infection (e.g. age 60 years or older, are pregnant, or have medical conditions) contact your physician’s office and tell them that you were exposed to someone with COVID-19. They may want to monitor your health more closely or test you for COVID-19.

What should I do to keep my infection from spreading to my family and other people in the community? 

Stay home except to get medical care. You should restrict activities outside your home, except for getting medical care. Do not go to work, school, or public areas. Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis. 

Separate yourself from other people and animals in your home.  

  • People: As much as possible, you should stay in a specific room and away from other people in your home. Also, you should use a separate bathroom, if available.  
  • Animals: You should restrict contact with pets and other animals while sick. When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick; if you must care for your pet, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets and wear a facemask, if possible. 

When should I wear a mask?

Guidelines regarding mask use are evolving as we learn more about COVID-19. The most recent guidance from Whatcom County Public Health Officials was published on April 4, 2020.

For updated information from the Washington State Department of Health, follow this link for recommendations relating to mask use.

Disease Investigation and Reporting

Investigating where and how people could have been exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19 is an important function of public health in managing this outbreak. 

We are working to identify and advise those people who have had close contact with confirmed cases.

  • Disease investigations include talking with a lab-confirmed case about:
    • Where they were during their infectious period.
    • Who they may have had contact with for more than 10 minutes in a space of less than 6 feet.

Once we know this information, we reach out to each person who is a close contact to:

  • Let them know of their potential exposure to the disease.
  • Give them instructions about how to prevent infecting others.
  • Explain what they can do to take care of themselves.

We also know that there are people infected with COVID-19 in our community who will not be tested, so people in our community will come in contact with COVID-19 and not be aware of it.

I know I had contact with someone with a positive case. Why haven’t I been contacted?

Identifying close contacts and informing them to stay home and monitor for symptoms is an important public health response. We make these contacts as soon as possible.

  • You are only considered a close contact if you have been with a confirmed case within six feet for more than 10 minutes.
  • If you were a close contact of a confirmed case, you can expect a call or other communication from one of our staff. They will talk with you and tell you what to do next. If you have questions, you can call us at 360-778-6100.

If you were a close contact of a confirmed case while they were at the hospital, you can expect to have someone from the hospital contact you. The hospital infection prevention team does the contact investigation work for hospital employees, patients and visitors. They are able to use electronic medical records to see who was in the waiting room at the same time as the confirmed case.

What details do you share about a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in our community?

COVID-19 is most commonly transmitted when people have been in close contact with someone who is infected with COVID-19. This means spending at least 10 minutes within 6 feet of that person. Because of this, we concentrate our case investigation activities on those people that had close contact with a confirmed case for a prolonged period of time. We work diligently to contact the individuals and the organizations that meet the close contact definition and advise them on how best to protect themselves and the community.

Why aren’t you reporting the numbers of patients who have recovered?

We get this question a lot. The most important reasons are that patient recoveries are not reported to us, and because that information would likely be incomplete and misleading. The reason it would be misleading is because some who become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 show little or no symptoms, and therefore are not tested in the first place. It’s likely that many people are recovering without even realizing that they’ve even been infected. If we don’t know how many have been infected, we can’t know how many have recovered, and any data we give on recovery rates would be inaccurate. This presents an additional challenge because people with little or no symptoms may transmit the virus to others without knowing it, and those people may, in turn, develop a more serious illness. This is part of the reason we’re asking everyone to stay home and stay safe, even if they don’t feel sick - because people who feel well can still cause severe illness in others. Lastly, people who know they have COVID-19 and then recover are not required to inform anyone, so we don’t know when that happens.

Ways to limit the spread of COVID-19

How can I keep my children safe and healthy while schools are closed?

Though the Health Department recommends that gatherings be avoided when possible, these guidelines for children and youth while schools are closed will help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

What can I do to help reduce COVID-19 from spreading to my family and other people in the community?

If you are not experiencing symptoms and have not been exposed to a confirmed case:

  • You should restrict activities outside your home and practice social distancing. 
    • Avoid public transportation (e.g., bus,  taxi,ride share).
    • Maintain distance of approximately 6 feet, or 2 meters, from others.
  • Do not go to work unless you are feeling well and it is for an essential function. 
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw used tissues in a lined trash can; immediately clean your hands as described below.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. 
    • If soap and water are not available, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, covering all surfaces of your hands and rubbing them together until they feel dry. 
    • Soap and water is preferred if hands are visibly dirty.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid sharing personal household items such as dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home. After using these items, they should be washed thoroughly with soap and water and dried before use by others.
  • Clean all “high-touch” surfaces such as counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables. Also, clean any surfaces that may have blood, stool, or body fluids on them. 
    • Use a household cleaning spray or wipe, according to the label instructions. Labels contain instructions for safe and effective use of the cleaning product including precautions you should take when applying the product, such as wearing gloves and making sure you have good ventilation during use of the product.

When is it safe to discontinue home isolation after illness?

For individuals with symptoms who are confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 and are directed to care for themselves at home, discontinue home isolation under the following conditions:

  • At least 3 days (72 hours) have passed since recovery you no longer have a fever and are no longer using fever-reducing medications and your respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath) have improved;
  • AND At least 7 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.
  • Individuals with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 who have not had any symptoms may discontinue home isolation when at least 7 days have passed since the date of their first positive COVID-19 diagnostic test and have had no subsequent illness.

Additional information for your household members, intimate partners, and caregivers at