What to Do in a Pandemic

pandemic preparedness essentials

Verywell / Tim Liedtke

The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 (coronavirus virus disease 20019) a pandemic. The threat of a disease spreading across the globe should be taken seriously. There are real, actionable things you can do to help soften the impact a pandemic can have on you and those around you.

What Is a Pandemic?

A pandemic occurs when a contagious disease is present over a large region of the earth (typically two or more continents). The pathogen, typically a virus or bacteria, will infect people in one part of the world before spreading to others through travel and migration until millions—sometimes billions—are infected. 

Such widespread illness can be extremely disruptive. Pandemics can lead to:  

  • The slowdown of supply chains
  • Weakened economies
  • The closure of schools or businesses
  • Travel restrictions
  • Misinformation, confusion, or public panic

Given these realities, it is understandable that people can become anxious or afraid when faced with a pandemic like COVID-19. But, there are things you can do to help minimize the disruption if a pandemic is likely or has already occurred.

How to Prepare for a Pandemic

Just as you might prepare for a hurricane, you can prepare for a pandemic, too. Staying informed, making plans, and stocking up on essentials can go a long way to softening the blow that typically accompanies a pandemic. 

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 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 things you can do to keep calm:

  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to the news, including social media.
  • Focus on what has not changed, rather than things that have.
  • Accept your feelings as normal. Minimizing your fears often makes them worse.
  • Embark on daily stress-relieving practices, such a meditation, yoga, guided imagery, and progressive muscle progression (PMR).

Do not hesitate to seek help from a counselor or psychiatrist if you are unable to cope, including embarking on online therapy.

Use Reliable, Fact-Based Sources 

Accurate information is crucial during—and leading up to—a pandemic. Having solid intel can help you make the right decisions and comprehend the actual risks to you and your family. 

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 is spread, or who is most at risk. As scientists race to find answers, misinformation and rumors can fill in the information void. This can lead people to forego appropriate preparations or make inappropriate ones.

You can protect yourself from inaccurate or misleading information in several ways:

  • Visit the websites of public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), or your local health department.
  • Have a healthy skepticism about things you read on Facebook or hear from friends or family until you are able to verify the information from a reliable source like the CDC.
  • Listen to infectious disease experts or governmental public health officials rather than celebrities or cable news commentators.

Stock Up on Essentials

Supply shortages can often occur during a pandemic. They are often short-lived but can cause stress and make it tough to find what you need when you need it.

Planning ahead on stocking up on essentials can help prevent this. Here are some of the things you should have on hand at the first indications of a pandemic:

  • Two weeks' supply of food for your family and pets
  • Two to three month's supply of prescription medications (the special approval of which can often be obtained from your insurance company)
  • Two to four weeks' supply of hygiene products, such as hand soap, shampoo, deodorant, diapers, and tampons
  • A first aid kit with nonprescription medications, such as fever reducers, cold and cough remedies, and antiseptics
  • Cleaning supplies, including trash bags, laundry detergent, dish soap, disinfectants, and bleach

You don’t have to run out and buy everything at once. But, if it looks as if a pandemic could severely affect your community, you may want to start buying a little extra with every shopping trip.

Avoid hoarding, the practice of which only ensures stock shortages.

Have a Game Plan

Things can move quickly during a pandemic. Planning in advance not only helps you prepare for every contingency but may help relieve stress as well. Among the considerations:

  • Home lockdown: If you and your family are stuck indoors for days or weeks, have indoor activities planned, especially if you have young children. Large-scale quarantines can slow internet connections from the added congestion, so don’t just rely on streaming videos and online games for entertainment.
  • Work shutdown: If you are not working because you are sick or your businesses has shut down, knowing what benefits you are entitled to can help enormously. This may include unemployment benefits, Social Security disability, or sick leave pay. If your job security is uncertain, try to save enough money to get you through the pay gaps or contact an unemployment counselor with your state's Department of Labor for advice and assistance.
  • School or daycare closures: Schools or child care facilities are often the first places to close during pandemics, requiring you to find alternative child care if you are unable to work remotely. Rely on family members who can either move in with you or loved ones who you trust will adhere to CDC guidelines if you leave your child with them.
  • Illness: If you or someone you love falls ill during the pandemic, you will need to know who to contact for help. Unless there is a medical emergency, do not bring an ill individual to a doctor or clinic without first calling. In some cases, a telehealth provider may be all that is needed to treat a non-emergency condition.

What to Do During a Pandemic 

Once a pandemic hits your community, you can limit the spread of infection by taking a few, simple precautions.

Follow Public Health Instructions

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. These may include:

  • Isolation or quarantine protocols: Isolation is intended to keep sick people separated from healthy ones until the infection is fully cleared. Quarantine refers to people who aren't sick but have been exposed (or potentially exposed) to infected people.
  • Travel notices: The CDC will often issue travel warnings, recommending the avoidance of travel to countries where the disease is widespread. These notices are not restrictions—health officials will typically not stop you from visiting countries that are flagged—but they may affect decisions made by businesses, including airlines.
  • Contact tracing: Contact tracing involves asking those who are sick where they have been or who they were with before getting ill. Health officials use this information to identify the source of an infection so that isolation or quarantine measures can be implemented to prevent further spread.

Even if the public health recommendations seem inconvenient, you should still adhere to them for the sake of others who may be at risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, including those with certain pre-existing conditions.

Face Masks

In light of the severity of COVID-19, the CDC recommends that anyone over the age of two wear cloth face coverings when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, Surgical masks or N-95 respirators are typically reserved for healthcare workers and first responders.

When worn correctly, face masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to you and others. Poorly fitted masks, excessive facial hair, and clumsy mask removal can greatly undermine their efficacy.

Know the Signs and Symptoms

Knowing what to look for during a pandemic can help you better understand when to stay home and who you may need to avoid. In the case of COVID-19, the signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If you have any of these signs or symptoms, call your healthcare provider right away to find out what to do, whether it be to stay at home or seek immediate care.

If you see someone else with the signs and symptoms of the disease, keep at least six feet away. Always keep a face mask on hand whenever out of your house.

Practice Good Hygiene

In addition to spotting the signs of the disease, you should know what to do to prevent it. This includes improved hygiene practices at home or when away from home.

Among the CDC recommendations:

  • Wash your hands frequently: Do so with soap and warm water, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if hand-washing isn’t an immediate option. Wash for at least 20 seconds (more or less the time it takes to sing the ABCs).  
  • Avoid touching your face: Hand-to-face contact is a common route of respiratory infections, particularly if touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. Although this can be tricky in younger children, you can teach them by placing an adhesive bandage on a finger.
  • Cover your cough and sneezes: Do so either with a tissue or by coughing or sneezing inside your elbow. Coughing into your hand can spread the infection to others you touch or leave traces of the pathogen on doorknobs or surfaces.
  • Get vaccinated: Make sure that everyone in you family is up to date on all of their recommended vaccines, including the annual flu shot.

Avoid Crowds

Viruses and bacteria can spread in a variety of ways, but a common thread among pandemics is that they 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, such as concerts, busy mass transit systems, sporting events, or religious services where people share cups or touch hands.

If you encounter anyone who looks sick, give them a little extra space or simply leave. Do not put yourself in harm's way out of a misguided sense of propriety.

What to Do If You Get Sick

If you get sick during a pandemic, stay home unless your doctor tells you otherwise. Even if you feel well enough to return to work or school, wait until your doctor gives you the OK. In some cases, you may be asymptomatic but still able to infect others.

Alternatively, you can ask your boss or school if there are remote options available to you so that you can stay at home.

Staying home can be hard for some, particularly for those who are paid hourly or rely on school or daycare for their children. If a pandemic seems likely, talk to your human resources department or school administrator as soon as possible to find out what options are available to you should you or your child get sick.

A Word From Verywell 

While you should always remain alert when it comes to infectious disease, it is equally important to stay calm. Focus on what you can do to prevent infections like COVID-19 rather than stressing about what might happen if you or someone you love gets infected.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

6 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. Department of Homeland Security. Pandemics. In:

  2. Qualls N, Levitt A, Kanade N, et al. Community mitigation guidelines to prevent pandemic influenza — United States, 2017. MMWR Recomm Rep 2017;66(RR-1):1-34. doi:10.15585/mmwr.rr6601a1

  3. World Health Organization. Contact tracing.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommendation regarding the use of cloth face coverings, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

  5. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. Considerations for wearing cloth face coverings.

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

By Robyn Correll, MPH
Robyn Correll, MPH holds a master of public health degree and has over a decade of experience working in the prevention of infectious diseases.