What to Do in a Pandemic

pandemic preparedness essentials

Verywell / Tim Liedtke

The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 (coronavirus) a pandemic. The threat of a disease spreading across the globe should be taken seriously. There are real, actionable things you can do to soften the impact a pandemic might have on your life and those you care about. Keep in mind that respiratory viruses (such as COVID-19) can be the cause of a pandemic, but pandemics can also be transmitted in other ways. 

What Is a Pandemic?

In general a pandemic is when a contagious disease is present over a large region of the earth (typically two or more continents). The pathogen (typically a virus or bacterium) infects people in one part of the world but then spreads from one place to the next until millions—sometimes billions—are at risk. 

Such widespread illness (and potentially deaths) can be extremely disruptive. Pandemics can lead to:  

  • Supply chains slowing down
  • Weakened economies
  • Schools or businesses closing
  • Travel restrictions
  • Misinformation, confusion, or panic

With everything that could happen during a pandemic, it’s understandable that some people become anxious or afraid. But there are things you can do to help minimize the disruption for you and your family. 

How to Prepare for a Pandemic

Just like you might prepare for a hurricane or an ice storm, you can prepare for a pandemic, too. Staying informed, making plans, and stocking up on essentials can go a long way to helping soften the blow of a pandemic if and when its impact begins to affect your community. 

Keep Calm 

Pandemics can be nerve-wracking, especially if you don’t know what to expect. But try to keep a cool head. Panicking can sometimes cause people to freeze up or make rash decisions that put them at unnecessary risk. Even if things feel out of your control, there are steps you can take to prepare. Focus on that.

Feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are normal during a pandemic. Being proactive about your mental health can help to keep both your mind and body stronger. Learn about the best online therapy options available to you.

Stay Informed by Reliable, Fact-Based Sources 

Accurate information is crucial during—and leading up to—a pandemic. Having solid intel can help you make sure you’re doing the right things to stay safe and understand what risk (if any) there is for you and your family. But it’s not always easy. 

In the early stages of a pandemic, there are often a lot of unknowns. It might not yet be clear what the pathogen is, how it spreads, or who is most at risk. While researchers and health officials work to find answers, misinformation and rumors can fill in the information gap. That can lead people to forgo appropriate preparations or cause widespread panic. 

Protect yourself from inaccurate or misleading information by: 

  • Visiting the websites of health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), or your local health department to find information on who is at risk and how to protect yourself.
  • Being a little skeptical of things you read online or hear from friends or family until you’re able to verify the information is correct by using a reliable source, like the CDC.
  • Listening to experts in infectious disease (like scientists, health officials, or healthcare providers), rather than celebrities or cable news commentators.

Stock Up on Essentials

During a pandemic, you may want to reduce grocery runs to avoid exposure to people, or stay at home to protect others if you do get sick. Supply shortages and cleaned-out store shelves might also make it tough to find what you need in the moment. Keeping extra essentials at home can help ensure you have what you need, when you need it. Here’s what you should have on hand:

  • Two weeks' worth of food and water for everyone in your home, including pets.
  • A continuous supply of prescription medications. You might have to get special approval from your healthcare provider and/or insurance company to do this.
  • A first aid kit and nonprescription medications, such as fever reducers and pain relievers, rehydrating fluids, vitamins, and cough or cold medicines.
  • Hygiene products, including two to four weeks' worth of hand soap, shampoo, deodorant, diapers, and tampons or pads.
  • Cleaning supplies, including trash bags, washable rags, and disinfectant and/or bleach.

You don’t have to run out and buy everything all at once. But if it looks like a pandemic could affect you or your community, you might want to start buying a little extra every shopping trip, if at all possible.

Face Masks

Wearing face masks can help prevent someone who is actively sick (ex. coughing) from infecting others around them, and wearing masks also can prevent someone who is asymptomatic from spreading illness. When worn correctly, face masks may also help protect healthy individuals from getting infected with a respiratory virus out in public. Poor fit, facial hair, and clumsy mask removal can all greatly reduce the effectiveness of masks at preventing infection.

In light of the severity of COVID-19, the CDC recommends the general public over the age of 2 wear cloth face coverings when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Surgical masks or N-95 respirators, however, need to be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders.

Make a Plan 

Things can move quickly during a pandemic. Make plans for what you will do in the event: 

  • You or your family are stuck inside for days or weeks. For example, have some inside activities planned, especially if you have young children. Large-scale quarantines can slow everyone’s internet connections from congestion, so don’t just rely on streaming videos and online games for entertainment.
  • You’re off work for days or weeks because you’re sick or businesses are shut down. This is especially important if you do not have access to paid sick leave or you are paid hourly. If at all possible, try to save up enough money to get you through gaps in pay, and if you can’t, confirm where you might be able to turn for support. 
  • Schools or child care facilities close, and you need alternative child care. Be aware of whether your primary or backup child care might be at elevated risk for disease, such as elderly grandparents.
  • You get sick and are unable to care for someone who relies on you, such as a child or an aging family member. 
  • You depend on someone else, and they get sick or are otherwise unable to care for you. 
  • Your healthcare provider is unable to see you or a family member if you get sick. For example, it might be helpful to look into what other healthcare providers are covered by your insurance, or whether there are affordable telemedicine options available for you.
  • You have an anxiety disorder or other mental illness that could be exacerbated by a pandemic. Talk with your healthcare provider or counselor about what techniques you can use to manage symptoms, especially if your usual coping strategies (such as going to the gym or support group) are unavailable.  

All of these will be easier if you’re in good contact with friends, family, and coworkers. It doesn’t hurt to check if your neighbors and family members feel prepared. Disruptions will likely be more manageable if people support each other and look out for one another. 

What to Do During a Pandemic 

Once a pandemic arrives in your community, you can limit your risk of getting sick, as well as passing the pathogen onto others, by taking a few precautions—namely, listening to health officials, learning what to look for, and staying home if you’re sick (or could be). 

Follow the Instructions of Health Officials 

Health officials are responsible for the health and safety of a community. During a pandemic, they might issue recommendations or policies to limit the spread of the disease, such as: 

  • Isolation or quarantine protocols: Isolation and quarantine are terms that describe keeping healthy, unexposed people apart from sick or potentially exposed people, in order to prevent the spread of disease to healthy people. Isolation is reserved for infected or symptomatic persons; quarantine refers to those who aren't sick or infected but have been exposed or potentially exposed to infected persons.
  • Travel notices: The CDC, for example, will often issue travel notices for travelers visiting countries where the disease might be particularly widespread. These notices are not restrictions—health officials will typically not stop you from visiting countries they have flagged in their notices—but they might affect decisions made by businesses, including airlines.
  • Contact tracing: This process involves asking those who are sick (or could be) where they have been or who they have been around. Health officials use this information to identify others who might be infected with the pathogen so that they can be contacted and potentially tested or quarantined. This can be an effective control measure to slow or halt transmission, especially in the beginning stages of a pandemic. 

Even if these recommendations are inconvenient for you personally, you should still adhere to them for your safety and for the safety of those around you. You can potentially endanger many people by breaking protocols or ignoring recommendations.

Learn the Signs and Symptoms of the Disease 

Knowing what to look for during a pandemic can help you better understand when you should stay home and who you might want to avoid. 

In the case of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 identified in 2019, the signs and symptoms of the disease are primarily:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing

If you have any of the known signs or symptoms of the pandemic illness (such as COVID-19), you should call your healthcare provider right away to find out what you should do—for example, stay or home or seek immediate medical attention. And if you see someone else exhibiting the signs and symptoms of the disease, you should keep your distance from them (for example, 6 feet away), if at all possible. 

Practice Preventive Measures 

In addition to spotting the signs of the disease, you should also know what to do to prevent it. For example, to prevent catching (or spreading) respiratory illnesses like influenza or coronaviruses, health officials recommend people take the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if hand-washing isn’t an immediate option. Wash for at least 20 seconds for maximum effectiveness (about the length of time it takes to sing the ABCs).  
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your nose, mouth, or eyes. (This can take some practice.)
  • Cover your cough and sneezes with a tissue or with the inside of your elbow. Coughing into your hand is not ideal, as it can be easy for you to spread the virus or bacteria to others or on communal surfaces like doorknobs, and coughing into the air can spread the pathogen several feet away, where others could breathe it in. 
  • Avoid close contact (for example, being within 6 feet) of someone who is actively sick (such as coughing). 
  • Practice other healthy behaviors, such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, and being up to date on routinely recommended vaccines—including the flu shot. Reducing the risk of other infections is even more important than usual when there is a potential pandemic because medical care might be stretched thin.

Avoid Crowded Spaces (and Sick People)

Viruses and bacteria can spread in a variety of ways, but a common thread among pandemics is that they always spread from person to person. In general, the more people you are around, the greater your chances of becoming infected. 

Try to avoid crowded spaces where people are in close contact, like concerts, busy mass transit systems, sporting events, or religious services where people share cups or touch hands. And if anyone looks or is acting sick (such as sniffing or sneezing), give them a little space. 

Stay Home If You’re Sick or Could Be 

If you do get sick during a pandemic, stay home if you can (unless, of course, your doctor tells you to seek medical attention). Even if you feel well enough to go to work or school, leaving home means risking getting others sick, too—including those who might end up being hospitalized or dying as a result of that infection.  

If your workplace does not have paid sick leave, or it is limited, talk to your boss about working from home or otherwise limiting your contact with other people. 

Because some infections continue to be contagious for a long time, you might need to stay away from others even after you start to feel better. Look to what health officials recommend or ask your doctor how long you should avoid contact with other people before venturing outside or going back to work or school. 

Staying home can be hard to do, particularly for those who are paid hourly or who rely on outside school or child care for their children. If a pandemic seems likely, talk to your boss or your company’s human resources department as soon as possible to find out what options might be available for you in the event you (or your child) get sick and should stay home. 

A Word From Verywell 

While we should always be alert and cautious when it comes to infectious disease, it’s important to stay calm. Focus on what you can do to prepare and what steps you can take to protect yourself and those around you.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pandemics. Department of Homeland Security. February 2020.

  2. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. Considerations for wearing cloth face coverings. Updated July 16, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommendation Regarding the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Especially in Areas of Significant Community-Based Transmission. April 3, 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Travel health notices.

  5. World Health Organization. Contact tracing. May 2017.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Prevention & treatment. February 2020.

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