6 Facts About COVID-19 Doctors Want You to Understand

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Photo: Getty Images / AzmanL / Well+Good Creative
In the eight months since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China, the headline-grabbing respiratory illness has circulated the globe with alarming speed. At press time, there have been over 18 million confirmed cases and almost 700,000 deaths—including more than 4.5 million cases and nearly 160,000 deaths in the U.S. alone—and those numbers are climbing every day. It's hard not to feel fear in such an uncertain climate, but experts worry that certain coronavirus facts can be hard to separate from fiction—much of which is coming from the Oval Office, and other sources we should, in theory, be able to trust.

Experts In This Article
  • Rishi Desai, MD, infectious disease physician, chief medical officer at Osmosis, former intelligence officer at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Saskia Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC, Saskia v. Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC, is a hospital epidemiologist and infection preventionist. During her work as an infection preventionist, she performed surveillance for infectious diseases, preparedness, and Ebola-response practices. She holds a doctorate in Biodefense from George Mason University where her research focuses on the role of infection prevention in facilitating global health security efforts. She is certified in Infection Control and has worked in both pediatric and adult acute care facilities.

Public health officials still know relatively little about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, so given its swift proliferation, they've taken serious steps to protect the public. Soon after the pandemic started spreading across the U.S., many state and local governments issued stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines to help contain the virus' spread—many of which are still in place today. But not everyone has been taking health experts' advice seriously, with a growing number of people ignoring directives to avoid large gatherings, keep a six-foot distance from others, and wear masks when in public. This is due, in part, to the fact that there's so much misinformation floating around about the risks and potential severity of COVID-19.

A large amount of the false information comes from President Donald Trump himself, who recently argued in an interview with Jonathan Swan for "Axios on HBO" that it wasn't at all useful to look at a country's population when assessing the severity of COVID-19. As of Tuesday, the United States is ranked the 10th-worst nation in terms of per capita coronavirus deaths, with 47.50 per 100,000 people, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. "It's surely a relevant statistic to say if the US has X population, and X percentage of death per head of that population," argued Swan. Trump disagreed, ominously accusing certain countries of faking their statistics, and repeating the myth that "because we do more tests, we have more cases." And while these myths are particularly harmful coming from the president of the United States, he's hardly alone in perpetuating a false narrative.

"There have been lots of rumors, unverified facts, and conspiracy theories that have been spread across the internet," said Chi-Man (Winnie) Yip, PhD, professor of global health policy and economics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a recent Harvard forum. This type of fake news is contributing to the virus' spread, says Chrysalis Wright, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in media behavior. "If people believe false claims related to preventing or treating COVID-19, they may stop taking measures recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that are aimed at reducing the spread of the virus and flattening the curve,” she told Well+Good.

Here, we've rounded up some of the COVID-19 misconceptions that medical pros want the public to stop believing, along with the facts that we should be mindful of instead. It's important to note that scientists are still studying the illness and new information is coming to light all the time. But this is what we know so far—straight from the experts on the front lines.

Experts explain how to separate coronavirus facts from fiction by dispelling 6 myths about COVID-19

1. COVID-19 is, indeed, more serious than the flu

According to a lesson on online medical education platform Osmosis, COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, a newly discovered coronavirus that invades the cells lining the respiratory tract. Scientists aren't entirely sure where it originated, but one theory is that a human may have contracted it from a pangolin, an armadillo-like animal that's illegally traded in Asia. According to the CDC, the novel coronavirus is primarily transmitted from person to person when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks within six feet of someone else—although scientists believe that it may also be able to travel longer distances through aerosols, tiny droplets that can be carried through the air. Studies show that the virus may live on surfaces for up to nine days, says Saskia Popescu, PhD, MPH, senior hospital infection prevention epidemiologist at HonorHealth. This is why hand-washing is so important right now, as is thorough cleaning of frequently-touched surfaces at home and at work.

In around 80 percent of cases, it appears that COVID-19 symptoms are mild to moderate—fatigue, headaches, and muscle aches are some of the most common symptoms among patients with mild illness, along with fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Those with moderate illness may even experience mild pneumonia. Another 14 percent of patients have severe illness that requires supplemental oxygen, while 5 percent of cases are critical. According to the CDC, those who are most at risk for severe complications from COVID-19 are older adults and those of any age with underlying medical conditions such as chronic kidney disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and serious heart conditions. Some people with COVID-19 don't experience symptoms at all—one study estimated that it could be 35 percent of all cases—but experts don't know exactly how many cases are asymptomatic because those who feel well aren't always tested.

Johns Hopkins University data estimates the COVID-19 mortality rate in the U.S. to be 4.4 percent, although it's difficult to get an accurate mortality number since, again, not everyone with the virus is being tested. While COVID-19 is less lethal than previous coronavirus pandemics such as SARS (9.6 percent fatality rate), and MERS (34 percent fatality rate), it is certainly much more deadly than the flu, which has a 0.1 percent mortality rate. Hospitalization rates for COVID-19 are also higher than those of the flu, says the CDC—and COVID-19 is also more contagious than the flu in general.

When will the pandemic be over? An expert shares what you need to know:

2. Young and healthy people actually *are* likely to contract the novel coronavirus

If you're one of those people who never gets sick, you might think you and your immune system of steel can ignore all the advice about COVID-19. But World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, stresses that's not the case. "While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity," he said in a briefing. "That means more people are susceptible to infection, and some will suffer severe disease."

The latest data CDC data available at press time serves as a warning about the potential severity of the disease—one that should resonate with complacent young people. The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations among adults aged 18 to 49 has been steadily climbing since late April. As of the week ending June 27, this age group accounts for 40 percent of known hospitalizations. Fifty-four percent of those known to have been admitted to the intensive care unit were under the age of 65. “I think everyone should be paying attention to this,” Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told the New York Times. “It’s not just going to be the elderly. There will be people age 20 and up. They do have to be careful, even if they think that they’re young and healthy.”

What's more, it's a myth that those in good health aren't at risk for severe illness. Consider Broadway star Nick Cordero—husband of fitness instructor Amanda Kloots—who died of complications from COVID-19 on July 5, after spending three months in the ICU. According to Kloots, the 41-year-old had no known health issues before becoming ill in March, and doctors say that cases like his are becoming increasingly common.

Even if you're not concerned about contracting COVID-19 yourself, it's important to follow public health protocol to reduce the risk of furthering the spread of the novel coronavirus. So keep washing your hands, stay at least six feet away from those you don't live with, wear a mask in public, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth—if not for yourself, then for the people around you. "This is a happy case where every one of those things also has benefits to the community," said Mark Lipsitch, PhD, professor of epidemiology and director for the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a recent Harvard forum. "All of those measures, small as they may be, help to slow the epidemic."

3. Wearing masks is critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19

At the beginning of the  COVID-19 pandemic, health officials advised the general public not to buy and wear medical-grade masks—namely because there was a shortage of those masks and health-care workers weren't able to get the protection they needed. But over the past few months, as confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths have continued to tick upwards, experts have started to recommend that all U.S. citizens wear non-medical, cloth face coverings in public. Many state governments even require it.

Studies show that wearing a non-medical mask won't fully protect you from catching or spreading COVID-19. As Rand McClain, DO, told Well+Good, a bandana cotton mask provides 10 to 30 percent more protection from viral particles than not wearing a mask at all. Medical grade masks provide 60 to 80 percent protection, while a face shield-and-mask pairing is even more protective. But given that people who are infected with COVID-19 can spread the virus for up to 14 days before they start showing symptoms, health pros agree that a cloth mask is better than no mask at all—and it's a sign of respect for the health of others.

4. You should avoid large gatherings right now, even as stay-at-home orders are relaxed

While most states are taking steps to reopen bars, restaurants, and other non-essential public places—albeit at different rates—the CDC states that virtual gatherings are the safest right now. Small, outdoor gatherings where people from the same community can maintain a six-foot distance are more risky, but less so than medium and large gatherings involving people who have traveled in from other areas. (Think weddings, family reunions, and blowout birthday parties.)

Although this may feel like a drag, there's an important reason behind it: As this infographic shows, keeping one's distance from others will help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. And the slower the virus spreads, the less overwhelmed our health care system will be by an influx of patients. "The simplest and most straightforward public health measures, if applied aggressively and persistently over time, have shown...the disease can be brought under control," says Dr. Ryan.

Another scenario that justifies a change of plans? If you've booked a non-essential international trip, the CDC recommends you put it on hold. You may not have a choice in some situations—Canada has closed its U.S. border, while the European Union has banned Americans from visiting this summer. Older adults and those with preexisting medical conditions are being discouraged from all travel right now. As for other destinations and demographics, the CDC says to consider whether COVID-19 is spreading at your destination or origin city; whether you'll be in close contact with others during the trip;  whether you, your travel companions, or someone you live with is at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19; and if you'd be able to take at least two weeks off from work or school if you were to contract the disease. "Travel during this time is a highly personal decision, and I think that the ultimate justification has to be made by the person traveling," says Rishi Desai, MD, MPH, former epidemic intelligence service officer in the Division of Viral Diseases at the CDC and the chief medical officer of Osmosis.

It's also a good idea to have a plan for what to do if your city goes back into lockdown, and to prepare a supply kit for emergency situations in general. "Having a week’s worth of food, medication, and general supplies on hand is always helpful if transportation or retail services are interrupted," says Dr. Popescu. "Part of this also means having the supplies to maintain your infection control practices—covering coughs, washing hands, staying home when sick, avoiding touching your face, and disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Make sure you’ve got hand soap, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes." The CDC also urges Americans not to stigmatize or discriminate against any specific ethnic group—particularly those of Asian descent, many of whom report being on the receiving end of unwarranted fear, hostility, and harassment since the virus took hold.

5. You should know when you need to seek care—and when you do not

While COVID-19 tests are now open to any U.S. patient with a doctor's order, you shouldn't necessarily run to urgent care if you find yourself with a cough or a low-grade fever. Doing so when you aren't seriously ill may cause more harm than good in a health-care system that's already stretched to capacity.

Even mild cases of COVID-19 do not necessarily require an office visit, says Paul Biddinger, MD, director of the Emergency Preparedness Research, Evaluation, and Practice Program at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "It's a new disease, people are fearful, and people want a diagnosis, yet bringing everyone into emergency departments, urgent care centers, or even their doctor's office stresses the health care system and makes disease transmission worse," he said in a recent Harvard forum. Rather, the goal should be to stay home and minimize contact with others if your symptoms are not severe.

If you have symptoms indicative of COVID-19 and suspect you've been exposed to the novel coronavirus somehow—if you've traveled to or live in an affected area, for example, or had close contact with someone at high risk—experts say you should contact your medical provider by phone. They'll be able to tell you whether you should get tested, how to do so, and what other steps to take. The same is true if you don't have any symptoms, but have had close contact with someone diagnosed with the illness. "There may come a day when we’re only looking for severe illness, but we’re trying to understand how the virus behaves and prevent additional spread," says Dr. Messonnier.

And, of course, if your symptoms progress beyond those of the common cold or flu, that warrants another call to your physician, says Dr. Desai.

6. Treatment is being developed, but it's not perfect yet

It's true that, as of right now, there is no medication or vaccine approved for treating COVID-19. However, scientists are hard at work to create pharmaceutical treatments for the illness. An existing antiviral drug called remdesivir—which has been proven to block SARS and MERS in animal and in vitro tests—was shown to improve recovery time of COVID-19 patients by four days, but it was less beneficial in the most seriously ill patients. It also didn't have a statistically significant impact on mortality, yet the FDA has issued an emergency authorization for doctors to use it on hospitalized patients. Scientists are continuing to test remdesivir in combination with other drugs in hopes of developing a more effective treatment strategy.

On the vaccine front, the National Institutes of Health is planning to enroll thousands of volunteers in a series of large-scale, Phase 3 clinical trials for various vaccines starting this summer. According to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the goal is to deliver "substantial quantities of a safe, effective vaccine" by January 2021—here's hoping we're able to reach that goal.

Originally published March 6, 2020; last updated on August 4, 2020 with additional reporting by Kells McPhillips. 

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