In the three 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 nearly 180,000 confirmed cases and more than 7,000 deaths across more than 140 countries, 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, and it’s causing people to worry unnecessarily.
Public health officials don’t yet know much about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, so given its swift proliferation, they’re taking serious steps to protect the public. The U.S., for example, has declared a national state of emergency so the government can respond more effectively to the crisis at hand, while cities and counties are closing schools, workplaces, and public gathering spots to help contain the virus’ spread.
“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. Not only is unwarranted fear unhealthy for one’s mental state, but it can also cause people to take actions that cause more harm than good. “Immediately overnight, people buy up all the medicine, all the masks—which are actually not needed—and all the food,” said Dr. Yip.
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 *NOT* NECESSARILY A DEATH SENTENCE
While the word “coronavirus” might sound scary, not all coronaviruses—a group of extremely common viruses that cause infections in your nose, sinuses, or upper throat—are linked to fatal illness. In fact, four coronaviruses cause about a quarter of all common colds. 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. The novel coronavirus is primarily transmitted from person to person when an infected person coughs or sneezes within three feet of someone else. Studies show that it may also 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—fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Some people don’t even experience symptoms at all. Another 14 percent of patients have severe illness, while 5 percent of cases are critical. In the worst cases, COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome, a condition that causes inflammation, fluid buildup around the lungs, and shock. According to the WHO, those who are most at risk for severe complications from COVID-19 are people over 60 years of age, smokers, and those with underlying medical conditions.
The most recent World Health Organization (WHO) estimate puts the COVID-19 fatality rate at 3.4 percent—or up to 10 percent in people with underlying medical conditions. While COVID-19 is certainly more deadly than the flu, which has a 0.1 percent mortality rate, at this point it’s less lethal than previous coronavirus pandemics such as SARS (9.6 percent fatality rate), and MERS (34 percent fatality rate). That said, COVID-19 is already much more widespread than those illnesses, which infected 8,098 people and 2,494 people, respectively, before they were controlled.
2. Young and healthy people are likely to contract the novel coronavirus
If you’re one of those people who never gets the flu, even without a vaccine, 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.”
On March 18, the CDC issued a fresh warning about the potential severity of the disease that should resonate with complacent young people. According to an early analysis of about 2,500 of the first confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., adults aged 20 to 54 account for 38 percent of known hospitalizations. Forty-eight 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.”
Even if you’re not worried 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 anyone coughing and sneezing, 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. COVID-19 DOESN’T HAVE TO BE a runaway train
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to tick upwards, it’s easy to feel like the novel coronavirus’ spread is completely out of control. But in reality, containment efforts are proving to be effective in countries that have reported COVID-19 cases.
“What we have been genuinely heartened by is that…where countries have put in place strong measures, we’ve remarkably seen that the virus is suppressed—or, at least, the clinical appearance of the virus,” said Dr. Ryan at the WHO briefing. Around eight countries in which COVID-19 is present have not reported any new cases in the last two weeks, added Dr. Ghebreyesus, while new case rates are slowing dramatically in mainland China, the epicenter of the epidemic. Officials believe that this is not just due to extreme measures—like putting entire cities under lockdown–but also basic public health practices such as testing and identifying cases early, providing proper healthcare, practicing good hygiene, and allowing workers and students to work from home.
That said, in order for containment measures to work, people have to actually implement them. It’s tricky to do so in this situation, when in many cases, the symptoms mimic a common cold or flu—people may not think they need to do anything differently if they suspect they have a more benign illness. This is why Dr. Lipsitch told The Atlantic that if things continue to progress as they have been, 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 within the next year. (Yes, those are big numbers. But Dr. Lipsitch also strongly emphasized that the majority of COVID-19 cases are mild or asymptomatic and that containment measures “will make the situation better”.)
Bottom line? Stay home when you’re sick (or if your local health officials recommend self-quarantine) and call your doctor if you think you may have been exposed to COVID-19—or if you’re showing symptoms of the illness. Then, follow their advice to the letter. “If a health-care provider or a public health worker tells you to stay home for 14 days unless you need medical care, please do that,” says Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Right now, individual actions can have an important impact on how this situation plays out.”
4. You MAY NEED to avoid public places right now
While different cities will have different social distancing recommendations based on the severity of their COVID-19 situations, the CDC has recommended that for the next eight weeks, all gatherings of 50 or more people should be canceled or postponed. (The White House is taking a more conservative approach, urging people to limit their gatherings to ten attendees or less.) The agency is also recommending that people stay at least six feet away from others when in public, as the virus mainly spreads between people who are in close contact. On a local level, cities such as New York City and Los Angeles are closing schools, gyms, bars, and other nonessential businesses, while restricting restaurants to takeout and delivery only.
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. And no, these public health measures do not involve wearing face masks on the subway—a move that’s not just ineffective at reducing COVID-19 risk, but could actually increase transmission of the novel coronavirus if there’s a shortage of masks available for health-care workers.
Another scenario that justifies a change of plans? If you’ve booked a non-essential trip trip to China, South Korea, Iran, Europe, the United Kingdom, or Ireland—the countries with the highest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases—the CDC recommends you put it on hold. Canada has closed its borders to foreigners and Europe is considering following suit. 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 school, work, or public transportation closures occur in your town, 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 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. “One of the lessons [from China] that we’re going to have to try and adopt in this country is to try and help people know when they should and shouldn’t seek care,” he said in a recent Harvard forum. “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.” 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 should be ready sooner than you think
It’s true that, as of right now, there is no medication or vaccine approved for treating COVID-19. However, a pharmaceutical treatment may come sooner than most people think. An existing antiviral drug called remdesivir—which has been proven to block SARS and MERS in animal and in vitro tests—has entered clinical trials for treating COVID-19 in patients. Scientists may know as soon as April whether it works or not, and if the results are positive, doctors could start using it on patients shortly thereafter.
Developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus would take longer, since in this case researchers would be building it from scratch. More than 20 vaccines are currently in development worldwide, and several pharmaceutical companies have vaccines ready to test in healthy people starting in April. But experts are estimating that it would take around 18 months to bring a vaccine to market if it were proven successful.
Originally published March 6, 2020; last updated March 19, 2020
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