From forums rife with conspiracy theories to intentionally misleading videos across social media, the sources of COVID-19 myths are too many to count. When examining stories published by traditional media sources between January 1 and May 26, Cornell University researchers found 1.1 million articles about the coronavirus—2.9 percent of then-published coronavirus-related articles—contained false claims. Only 16 percent of the stories repeated those claims in an effort to fact-check them. Additionally, researchers named President Donald Trump as the “single largest driver” of COVID-19 myths.
Below, public health experts combat COVID-19 myths with facts to help us all get a better understanding of how people get COVID-19 and what recovery looks like.
Doctors explain key facts about COVID-19 in an effort to dispel some of the myths
1. Much of the spread is community-based
Jennifer Horney, PhD, founder and director of the University of Delaware’s Epidemiology program, shares that even though we hear stories about people catching the virus from superspreader events, like the White House Rose Garden ceremony annoucing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett or communal living situations like nursing homes, the virus can also travel through a community without large groups of people convening.
“So much of the spread now is community-based. And so, as people are becoming fatigued about remaining socially distant and all those kinds of things, they’re taking more risks for the type of activities that they used to do, like going out to restaurants or maybe having family gatherings,” says Dr. Horney. “We have that cognitive dissonance to think like, ‘It’s safe, it’s just my family.’ But actually, it’s not.”
An epidemiologist’s predictions about the end of the pandemic:
2. Wearing a mask does not weaken your immune system
There’s been some concern around the idea that always wearing a mask weakens our immune systems, thus making us more likely to catch SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, or the flu. Rebecca Dutch, PhD, a virologist at the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine, explains that this isn’t something to worry about.
“There is no scientific basis for the argument that social distancing and masks weaken our immune systems,” says Dr. Dutch. “Some people have argued that it is a problem that we will be exposed to less pathogens, and thus have fewer challenges to our immune system. But while these behaviors reduce our exposure to some pathogens, they do not completely eliminate our exposure to airborne pathogens (though they do reduce it, which is why we are wearing them to reduce risk from SARS-CoV-2), and masks and distancing do little to change our exposure to pathogens in food, for example. In addition, our immune systems do not need constant stimulation to stay healthy.”
Marcus Plescia, MD, MPH, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, adds that “you don’t form an immune response to something without becoming infected by it.” Whether you don’t wear a mask and catch the flu now or wear a mask this year and catch the flu next year, in both cases, you still get sick and will develop an immune response to protect you the next time you come in contact with that flu strain.
3. More testing does not lead to more cases
“People are still not understanding that as long as we’re not seeing a percentage of positive tests decrease over time, we still have more cases, even doing more testing,” says Dr. Horney. Take North Dakota and South Dakota, for example. Each state has recorded nearly 40,000 total cases since March. In the past seven days, they’ve each recorded close to 7,000 new cases, or about 15 percent of their total cases. “This increase in cases is not because we’re testing more, it’s because we have more cases,” she says.
4. There’s no such thing as a risk-free indoor gathering
As temperatures drop and park hangouts or outdoor dining becomes less attractive, it’s easy to convince yourself that as long as everyone wears their masks, stays six-feet apart, and washes their hands that it’s safe to hang out inside. Dr. Plescia explains that even in that scenario, there is still risk involved.
“[The idea that] everybody’s going to get together and keep their distance and wear their mask all the time—that rarely happens. For various reasons people take off the mask or they get kind of close to each other and that’s when transmission occurs,” he says. And even if everyone really did keep their masks on, they aren’t 100 percent effective in preventing transmission. “There is still some risk and the longer that you’re in that kind of setting, the more there’s a risk that you still might contract it even if everybody is wearing masks.”
5. You can still be contagious even if you feel better
The White House doctor announced that Trump was no longer contagious a little over a week after being diagnosed with COVID-19 and just five days after being released from the hospital. This is highly unlikely or at least uncommon, say most doctors and scientists. And while the president said he was feeling better than ever, just because you feel good doesn’t mean you’re not still very much contagious. Dr. Dutch says that Trump likely underwent numerous tests to assess the load of the virus in his system.
“In some cases, people can be released from isolation sooner when they have had several of these tests and they indicate that the load of virus in their system has decreased to a level where they are no longer likely to spread the virus, and it is likely this is what the president’s doctor was referring to,” says Dr. Dutch. “Without access to those additional tests, people should stick to the time estimates for isolation to be sure they are safe for others to be around.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says people with COVID-19 who have mild to moderate symptoms remain infectious no longer than 10 days after symptom start and those with severe to critical cases likely remain infectious no longer than 20 days after symptom start.
6. You should adhere to mask-wearing and social distancing even if you’ve recovered from COVID-19
The likelihood of reinfection is what researchers know the least about COVID-19, says Dr. Horney. But they do know that it’s possible.
“There are a very limited number, but a growing number of cases of people who have COVID a second time distinct from the first time,” says Dr. Horney. “And there’s even some instances of people who that second infection turns out to be much more severe than the first.
Recovered people still need to be careful to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.
“CDC recommends that all people, regardless of symptoms, and whether or not they have had COVID-19 in the past, continue to take all recommended measures to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission (i.e., wear masks, stay 6 feet away from others whenever possible, and wash hands regularly),” reads the CDC website.
Living a “normal” life during the spread of COVID-19 feels like a myth… but it’s possible, according to an emergency room physician:
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