Novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

Last Updated: May 26, 2020
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  • : We're working on a scenario guide, but in the meantime we've promoted the "Moderate" scenario to "Baseline," and removed or original baseline scenario entirely because it has already been proven too optimistic. So for now we only have two scenarios, a baseline scenario for moderate disruption, and a sever disruption scenario.
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If you’re worried about the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus outbreak or feel unprepared, this guide is for you.

Experts explain what you should do to get ready, how to protect yourself, what researchers believe are the likely scenarios going forward, and the latest fact-checked news.

Always be skeptical about things you read and share online in situations like this. There’s enough actual bad news about COVID — fake news and conspiracy theories just make things worse.

You can trust this advice because The Prepared was one of the first western publications to track COVID, and this page started warning people in January to prepare for exactly the disruptions and lockdowns that have happened since. Our team also includes practicing medical experts in relevant fields, such as front-line medical staff, epidemiologists (disease doctors) using big data to track the pandemic, and modern preparedness leaders.

The important stuff:

  • Don’t be fooled by people around you shrugging this off — you do not want to get COVID-19, even if you aren’t in a demographic with high risk of death. Scientists are still learning about the virus and what kind of lasting damage it can leave in people who survive. So don’t be cavalier with your health and the health of your loved ones.
  • The idea is to keep yourself healthy (or at least avoid being part of the public health problem) until we reach herd immunity. That will only happen once a vaccine is distributed or natural spread has run its course.
  • That means we’ll all be dealing with this in some form for at least another year, likely through the end of the 2020-21 winter season or beyond.
  • Even though parts of the US and world are “reopening” into the summer, that does not mean the danger is gone. Legitimate experts (including the government’s own advisors) are saying this reopening will make the spread worse and likely lead to a second wave of deaths and then more lockdowns to flatten the curve back down .
  • So besides protecting yourself, you should be prepared for more lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, economic woes, travel restrictions, social distancing, civil unrest, and other challenges. That means keeping your supplies of critical preps — water, food, medications — topped up, and not letting them get too low.

Your preparation goals fall into two buckets: protecting yourself from catching (or spreading) the virus and being able to shelter in your home to minimize outside contact.

Protecting against COVID-19:

  • The biggest risk is people being close enough to each other for the virus to spread through breathing, talking, coughing, and so on. Your “face holes” (mouth, nose, eyes) are COVID’s favorite way to enter and exit the body — either through the air or by riding on something else that then touches those entry points (like your hands).
  • Do you have a proper respirator (N95 or better)? If not, you’ll need to make your own face coverings. Although DIY options aren’t as good, they do provide some protection both for the wearer and people around them. There’s no reason to be around other people outside of your household without a mask.
  • Experts are increasingly confident that your risk of catching the coronavirus is far higher indoors than it is outdoors. So avoid being indoors with anyone outside your quarantine group — the larger the crowd and smaller the indoor location, the higher the danger — and strongly prefer outdoors venues for all face-to-face interactions.
  • Gloves can help you cut down on how often you should wash your hands. But gloves are only effective if you change them often and don’t touch sensitive areas.
  • A cheap pulse oximeter is a good way to catch early warning signs of the virus without having to leave your home.

Preparing for the ripple effects:

  • A personal financial emergency is one of the biggest threats facing most people — that’s especially true right now. Do your best to build up and maintain your “safety net” cash reserves — don’t buy things you don’t really need, refinance your mortgage if you can get a lower rate, pay off credit cards, etc.
  • Always keep on-hand enough supplies for a sudden two-week quarantine in your home. Really you should try for three months of supplies, but two weeks is the minimum. This stash will also insulate you against surprise supply chain disruptions.
  • Food, medicine, daily supplies like soap, and ways to fight cabin fever are the biggest weak spots for most people.
  • For every challenge you’ve faced so far — from a longer-than-expected lockdown to a shortage of some food or product you depend on — use your “lessons learned” to plan on facing an even more severe version of that same thing. We’re all hoping for the situation to improve, but it may get worse.
Recent blog posts for COVID-19:

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What the next weeks might look like

Many public health experts expect a resurgence of cases of COVID-19 in the US in the wake of the re-openings. The main questions are around severity and timing.

When thinking about the escalating severity of the pandemic and how to prepare for it, we use a pair of simple questions for thinking through what is likely to unfold:

  1. How many more “New York City” scenarios will we have in the US?
  2. How far apart will these new NYC-style events be spaced?

Then there’s the question of timing — i.e., if we have, say, a severe scenario of many more NYC-level outbreaks, will they begin to ramp up immediately after the summer reopening, or will the summer heat and humidity help hold them off until autumn?

Note that even if summer weather plays a big role in the evolution of the pandemic, it isn’t an all-or-nothing factor (i.e. the outbreak stalls everywhere the weather is hot and/or humid). Rather, heat and humidity can be thought of as “interventions” that would work in combination with other interventions (like mask wearing and social distancing) to suppress the spread of the coronavirus. So one city may have high heat and humidity but very low mask usage and social distancing, which leads to a summer outbreak. While another city may avoid a summer outbreak with a combination of summer heat and universal mask wearing that keeps its curve flat.

Finally, there’s a randomness factor to all of this: as was the case with the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, some cities and towns were mysteriously spared, while nearby places were very hard-hit. Nobody ever figured out why some of these locations had the outcomes that they had. We’re likely to be equally mystified by what places COVID-19 spares and what places it overwhelms. Indeed, this randomness has already reared its head in NYC, where some boroughs were hammered while others were largely unscathed.

The bottom line: Experts expect the pandemic to increase in severity in the US after we lift the lockdowns, but the timetable and geographic distribution of that increase are very large unknowns. The timetable probably will be affected by the weather, and the geographic distribution by both weather and local interventions.

Baseline scenario

Our baseline scenario — what we feel is most likely to unfold — is that the state-by-state reopenings will cause the virus to begin spreading again, but not evenly.

In locations with milder outbreaks, people will resume something approximating normal life — shops will re-open, parks and beaches will fill up, and folks will venture outside to restaurants, bars, concerts, religious services, and other public venues.

In hard-hit regions, case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths will surge, and there will be significant disruption to daily life. You should prepare as if your area will be hard-hit, while hoping you can avoid the worst.

What to prepare for:

  • More waves of lockdowns, along with violent backlash against the new lockdowns.
  • Violence around social distancing measures, e.g. assaults on mask wearers or businesses that enforce distancing rules.
  • Intermittent food supply disruptions, as supply chains struggle to adjust to ongoing and repeated plant closures, location-specific changes in restaurant demand, and the after-effects of widespread culling of flocks and herds.
  • Ongoing disruptions in supplies for cleaning products, PPE, electronics, and other products manufactured abroad.
  • Continued pressure on local healthcare systems as shortages of critical protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and prescriptions drugs continue into the Fall. Hospitals in the most affected cities will be overloaded.
  • Ongoing international travel restrictions.
  • Ongoing disruptions in domestic air travel, due to the following: 1) pilots and airline staff refuse to fly in and out of affected cities, 2) fear and infection control measures like temperature checkpoints make air travel too inconvenient and people stop flying, which translates into lots of canceled flights.
  • More companies going permanently to remote work, and continuing to their moratoriums on all business travel.
  • Some significant amount of continued, voluntary home quarantine by people whose work and/or lifestyle makes this possible (e.g. remote workers, parents who homeschool).
  • Isolated examples of voluntary relocation within your own network, as friends, family, or coworkers opt to move out of an affected zone until things calm down.
  • Isolated but high-profile instances of xenophobic/racist violence, which causes widespread worries about physical safety among targeted groups.

Optimistic scenario

A more moderate, optimistic scenario than our baseline scenario, is that a combination of ongoing social distancing, mask usage, the shift of most public life outdoors, and good luck keeps the case count from spiking upwards as states relax quarantine measures.

Under this scenario, there would still be isolated surges in cases and hospitalizations, but the curve would flatten out in most places, and then would bend down as the virus’s spread is choked off. So this scenario is basically like our baseline scenario, but with few regions seeing surges in cases.

In most areas in the US, life would begin to look a like the old days, but the following would still be expected:

What to prepare for:

  • Widespread mask usage, as masks become a part of daily life for most people.
  • Dramatically longer wait times at shops, restaurants, and other public venues, as smaller groups are let in and distancing rules are enforced.
  • Intermittent food supply disruptions, as a surge in restaurant re-openings makes places new stress on the still-recovering food supply chain.
  • Ongoing disruptions in supplies for cleaning products, PPE, electronics, and other products manufactured abroad.
  • Some significant amount of continued, voluntary home quarantine by people whose work and/or lifestyle makes this possible (e.g. remote workers, parents who homeschool).
  • Economic disruption, as many businesses close permanently because they cannot remain profitable under the new distancing rules.

If this more optimistic scenario pans out, we would urge you to treat this as an opportunity to prepare for the virus to return with a vengeance in the Fall — either in combination with the flu, or in the form of a deadlier second wave (i.e. the Spanish Flu scenario).

Severe scenario: the big burn

Our severe scenario is like our baseline scenario, but with most major areas seeing a surge in hospitalizations and deaths as the restrictions ease. This scenario could take place this summer, or it could be deferred until the fall, when a combination of a resurgence in SARS-COV-2 combines with a bad flu season to fill up hospitals in most major metro areas

In this case, we’d envision a second wave of lockdowns that were called for but probably not complied with. So you should prepare for everything in our baseline scenario, plus the following.

What to prepare for:

  • Serious food supply disruptions, as workers in the food supply chain fall ill and facilities close for extended periods.
  • Mass public unrest and violence over new lockdowns, mask usage rules, food shortages, job losses, and supply chain disruption.
  • Continued economic disruptions like unemployment, business closures, bankruptcies, and stock market drops.
  • Continued school and daycare closures.
  • Long waits at hospitals and clinics, and more deaths from unrelated illnesses because of overall reduced access to healthcare.
  • Dedicated quarantine areas set up by FEMA, the military, the Red Cross, and other groups.
  • Serious restrictions on domestic air travel, either from official order or because pilots and crew refuse to show up.
  • Extended delivery times from carriers like USPS, UPS, and FedEx, as they cope with a combination of increased load (everyone’s ordering from home), reduced staff, and travel restrictions.
  • Internet slowdowns in some neighborhoods, since everyone is home and streaming (or remote working) at the same time.
  • Sealing off an area of a home or apartment in order to quarantine an ill family member.
  • Temporary relocation to a safer area with much lower case count and less chaos and disruption.
  • More instances of xenophobic/racist violence, along with some inter-ethnic conflicts in urban areas, as scared people begin to group up and turn on one another.

Why you should avoid a run-in with COVID-19

Unless you’re very young, you really don’t want to get COVID-19. So your long-term plan should be to avoid catching it until there’s either a vaccine or some form of naturally developing herd immunity that will keep you safe.

Here’s why it’s important to avoid catching COVID-19: depending on your age and physical condition, your risk of dying from a bout with COVID-19 may be close to zero. But death is not the only bad that could happen to you.

COVID-19 is not like a flu, where if you get over it then it’s like you’ve never had it. For those who survive it, the aftereffects can be severe and long-lasting:

Steps you should take to avoid getting sick

Our staff includes trained healthcare professionals and researchers who are constantly following the latest studies and medical literature for COVID-19, so this section represents our current best understanding of how to keep yourself from catching the virus.

Here are the precautions everyone should take to avoid catching the virus:

  • Wear a mask at all times in public. Preferably an N95, but use whatever is available to you.
  • Prefer outdoors to indoors for any and all social interactions — from one-on-one meetings to group gatherings, everything happens outdoors if possible.
  • Keep washing your hands.
  • Keep doing physical distancing (see below)
  • Stay home if you’re sick. Even if you don’t have COVID-19, your immune system could be suppressed due to some other illness, making you more vulnerable.
  • Regularly check your blood oxygen level with a pulse oximeter. If your level is trending down, that is cause for concern and you should get checked out.
  • Be aware of how often you touch your face and try to break that habit right now.

How to continue physical distancing for the long-term:

  • Avoid being in an enclosed space with anyone who is unmasked.
  • Continue to shelter in place when you have the option.
  • Don’t shake hands with other people — it’s a gross custom that needs to end anyway.
  • Do your shopping online, or take advantage of the contactless curbside pickup options many local businesses are introducing.
  • Use the six foot rule. Yes, it’s a bit arbitrary, but it seems to be working.
  • Avoid larger gatherings of ten or more people, especially if they happen indoors. Really, the smaller the better.

Plan to keep taking all of the above precautions until we reach some form of herd immunity. This could mean a year or more of these kinds of measures. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

What to do if you think you’re infected:

  • Isolate yourself and warn family members.
  • Call your doctor, and get tested as soon as possible.
  • If you go to a hospital or other healthcare facility, wear your protective gear and don’t take it off unless a pro tells you to. If you don’t have proper protective gear, use anything possible, such as a bandana or t-shirt over your mouth.

What to buy to protect yourself against the coronavirus

When it comes to stocking up on protective gear and medical products, the idea is not to recreate a full-blown emergency room or ICU. Rather, you want to have enough of an ability to take care of minor medical situations at home that you don’t have to run out to a doctor’s office or pharmacy unless it’s a serious medical emergency.

You should also prepare for medicine shortages, because not only will supply chains and factories be disrupted, but the demand for medications from the overloaded healthcare system will be so high that you may have a hard time getting many common over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs.

Your goals:

  • Try to get a few months’ supply of your prescription medications.
  • Stock up on commonly used medications, e.g. pain relievers, cough suppressants, antibiotic ointments and creams, and the like.
  • Prepare for the inevitable stomach problems that will arise from eating your shelter-in-place food by buying Imodium AD and similar products.
  • Prepare for the possibility that you may need to quarantine a sick friend or family member inside your home.
  • Be able to clean and disinfect the space where you and possibly multiple others will be living for an extended period.

The bare essentials:

  • Hand sanitizer
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Respirators — see below. If you have facial hair, you’ll also want to throw in a razor and shaving cream, because some facial hair styles are not compatible with masks.
  • Eye protection such as industrial safety goggles, swim goggles, or anything that would keep someone else’s sneeze from hitting your eyes (even basic glasses are better than nothing)
  • Toilet paper and feminine hygiene products. (This stuff turned into currency on Hong Kong during their lockdown, since so few thought to stockpile it.)
  • Bleach, alcohol, and other household cleaners that will kill viruses on shared surfaces.

The complete list: For the specific purpose of pandemic preparedness and sheltering in place, we have combined our individual first aid kit and home medical supplies lists into a single, more specialized kit. This kit also contains hygiene products for cleaning, sanitation, and sealing off an area of a home for quarantine purposes.

A word about respirators

Respirators are tricky, and there’s a lot of bad info out there. You can read the full beginner’s guide to respirators and gas masks, including tips on how to use them and recommended models. The most important bits:

  • You want a respirator rated N95 or above (e.g. P100).
  • Surgical masks — the common types found at corner stores that are more commonly worn in Asia — are not proper respirators. They are mostly designed to protect other people from you, not the other way around.
  • However, proper respirators are in low supply around the world right now (3M is running their factory 24/7 just to meet urgent medical needs). If the best you can do is a surgical mask, it’s better than nothing.
  • Respirator filters/cartridges don’t last as long as most people think, so buy as many as you reasonably can.
  • A full-face respirator (i.e. a gas mask) protects your eyes, nose, and mouth at the same time. If you buy disposable or half-face respirators, you’ll also want separate eye protection.
  • Fit is important — respirators need a tight seal around your face in order to stop bad particles from getting inside.
  • Which means those with facial hair or children with small faces need to be extra careful, since there isn’t a proper seal around the face.

What to buy for the other challenges of an outbreak

Note that under even the most severe scenarios experts currently envision within the US, utilities and local services/governments will still function. So for now, what you’re mostly focused on is being able to comfortably survive locked in your house for a few weeks. This means you’ll need water, food, and things to keep you occupied during a lockdown.

You also might not have much warning before the moment comes that you need to stay in your home for days or weeks — don’t assume you’ll have time to run to the store or that the supplies you want will still be on the shelves.

Food and water

Your goals:

  • Have ready access to enough potable water for at least 72 hours (i.e. three gallons, at one gallon per person per day). It’s very unlikely the tap would run dry, but water is so critical that you never want to risk being without it. Ideally you’d like 15 gallons per person, so enough for five days.
  • Cover the nutritional basics (carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals)
  • Stock up slowly by grabbing extra every time you go out.
  • Prefer foods you already eat, so as to avoid the gastrointestinal problems that come with disruption to your diet
  • Prefer shelf-stable foods that don’t require refrigeration
  • Get some comfort foods — candy, desserts, snacks, baked goods — to help with the stress of a crisis and a change in routine
  • Mix staples that require stovetop preparation (e.g. rice, pasta, beans) with ready-to-eat meals (e.g. canned goods, MREs), because you may not always be in a position to prepare food due to illness or lack of time.

Water is so important that we include it here as a requirement despite our starting assumption that the taps will run throughout a pandemic. It may not be feasible to store multiple weeks worth of water, but you should at least have 72 hours worth (three gallons per person) on-hand in case of a temporary disruption.

Here’s a review of common water containers you can fill from the tap. You should also pick up a portable water filter.

Our Picks
Reliance Rhino 5.5 Gal Water Container
Best container for most people:

Reliance Rhino 5.5 Gal Water Container

Toughest container in the middle tier price class. Somewhat stackable for short term storage. Comes with everything you need. Survived our drop and crush tests.
HydroBlu Versa Inline Filter Kit
Best filter kit for most people:

HydroBlu Versa Inline Filter Kit

Bacteria/protozoa protection. The kit includes two soft attachable water bags, a hose, hose clamp, and bucket adapter. 0.1 micron filter. Lasts 378,00 liters (100,000 gal). 1.5 oz heavy, 5.5" long.

Once you have water squared away, then begin stocking up on food.

When most people think of shelf-stable emergency food, they think of canned goods, military-style MREs, or specialized emergency food. All of these things are fantastic, especially if you’re preparing for a long-term grid-down event, but if you’re just preparing for a multi-week shelter-in-place scenario then you don’t need food with a 30-year shelf-life.

The bulk of your shelf-stable food preps will be bags of beans and legumes, rice, flour, pasta, and other staples you can buy in bulk and prepare easily. As you select these bulk staples, look for a mix of carbs (e.g. rice, flour), protein (e.g. beans, lentils), and fiber (e.g. oats).

You’ll need oils and animal fats, both for preparing the staples and because fat is an essential macronutrient. So stock up on cooking oil — the experts we’ve talked to love coconut oil, avocado oil, Smart Balance, almond oil, and olive oil. These different oils have different heat tolerances, shelf lives, and fat profiles, so think through your needs and diet before heading to the store.

Protein is key, so if you have a freezer then now’s a good time to stock up on meats of different kinds. And if you don’t have a freezer, you can get a good-sized chest freezer at most hardware stores for well under $200. So if you have the space and can spend the money, a cheap freezer can be an amazing prep.

You should also consider adding meal replacement mixes and protein powders, because these products last for months in a pantry and can add enough protein, vitamins, and minerals to turn a simple bowl of cereal or oatmeal into a complete meal with most of the essential micro macro- and micro-nutrients. (And if you add oil to the cereal, then you’ve got fat covered, too.)

The kit below is a sample shopping list for one person for one week. You can use it as-is, copy it and customize it with our Kit Builder tool, or just draw on it for inspiration as you plan your next shopping trip.

This next kit is a work-in-progress, and is broken up by nutrient type. This is meant to give you ideas as you go through Costco, Wal-Mart, or your local grocery store and load up on supplies.

Entertainment and distractions

The most important aspect of preparedness is mindset — this means managing your stress levels and overall state of mind so that you can think clearly and make high-quality decisions. So while it’s important to stay informed, if you’re constantly glued to social media or the news during a pandemic lockdown, your mental health may suffer and your decision-making capacity become degraded.

You need to be able to escape for a bit, to relax, to laugh, and to enjoy the company of other people who are going through a crisis with you.

Your goals:

  • Unplug from the news and social media, and give your eyes and mind a rest.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Socialize and interact with others face-to-face
  • Build community
  • Give yourself and everyone else something to look forward to in the afternoons or evenings
  • Unwind at the end of a long day of doing whatever’s you had to do to get through the crisis
  • Be able to keep yourself entertained even if the Internet is too slow to stream movies and TV.

The following list gives a few general ideas for staying entertained and distracted during the long bouts of boredom that characterize a lockdown. Some of the items are solo activities you can do alone, while others are more social. It’s important to have a mix, because you’ll need both face-to-face human connection and some time alone if you’re sheltering in place with others.

  • Downloaded movies and DVDs (in case your internet is disrupted).
  • Computer or console games
  • Board games
  • Card games
  • Puzzles

Ready to go past the basics?

The items above are the bare essentials for this specific scenario and for people who don’t want to go any deeper into the preparedness community or mindset.

But if you want to go a little further and cover scenarios where some local services start failing or you have to evacuate:

If this event has opened your eyes to just how fragile our world is — and how important it is for you to be self-reliant — it’s easier than you think to become more properly prepared. Check these out:

Although we don’t yet believe things are going to decay to the level of social unrest, looting, and violence, many readers are nonetheless asking us questions about personal protection and how to defend their families and supplies if things get worse. If you’re wondering the same:

Links to online news sources and portals

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