Who can you trust?
Since the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, misinformation has been a major problem throughout the country, resulting in everything from a spike in hate crimes to the unnecessary hoarding of hand sanitizer.
In April, ABC News reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigations was expecting to see an increase of hate crimes against Asian Americans as a result of the spread of coronavirus and the use of rhetoric like “China virus” or “Wuhan virus,” in reference to the global pandemic. "The FBI makes this assessment based on the assumption that a portion of the US public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations,” stated the intelligence report, compiled by the FBI’s office in Houston and issued to local law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a statement that reads, “CDC recommends hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when soap and water are not available.” While basic hand-washing remains the most effective way to prevent contraction, hand sanitizer hoarding and price gouging have both been been widely reported. The New York Times interviewed one Tennessee man who purchased 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer the day following the first reported COVID-19 fatality.
These are just two examples of the severe (and strange) consequences that stem from the rampant circulation of misinformation. Portland-based epidemiologist Sonja Nakasian and Angelika Manthripragada of Los Angeles, CA work together to debunk some frequently shared myths, while explaining where we should really be focusing our attention.
- Sonja Nakasian, a Portland-based epidemiologist, debunks COVID-19 myths while offering the truth behind them.
Fact: (SN & AM) COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus. While the group of viruses known as coronaviruses were identified in the mid-1960s, COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus. It’s a new strain, one not previously identified in humans.
Coronaviruses are known to infect many species of animals. Before the turn of the 21st Century, coronaviruses remained relatively obscure because the identified impacts of coronavirus infections were considered mild. Human coronavirus was recognized as a larger health threat in 2003, with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) global pandemic.
Myth: People should just go about their lives as usual.
Fact: We are in an unprecedented situation and must all do our best to follow expert guidelines provided by local public health agencies and national/international agencies such as the CDC and WHO. This includes stay at home orders, social distancing regardless of where you live, and regular hand-washing. While there is no reason to panic if we all follow guidelines and act responsibly, we do need to collectively understand that life as usual will continue to be disrupted. When breaking down the numbers in the U.S., the problem comes into perspective. According to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, data from a 2018 Behavioral Risk Factor survey identified more than 105 million adults in the United States (which translates to 41% of the US population), that are at heightened risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19 due to their age (over 60), pre-existing conditions or both. Not following expert guidelines and recommendations increases the risk of COVID-19 infection for everyone, including the 41% of Americans at risk of serious complications, caregivers and first responders, while further burdening our healthcare system.
If you feel that it’s OK to go out for non-essentials or to socialize because you and your family are “fine,” keep in mind that you may still be a carrier even if you are asymptomatic. No matter your age and health status, disregarding the CDC and WHO recommendations would simply increase the risk of spreading the virus.
Myth: Young, healthy people have nothing to worry about.
Fact: The reality is, every age group should be cautious. The fact that elderly individuals appear to be more susceptible to being hospitalized and/or dying from COVID-19 doesn’t mean that young people have nothing to worry about. Preliminary data from CDC show that COVID-19 causes severe illness leading to hospitalization, including ICU admission and death, in adults of any age. In fact, 38% of those hospitalized in the U.S. as a result of infection were between 20 and 54 years of age, and 12% of adults 20 to 44 years of age were admitted to an intensive care unit. Additionally, there have been several case reports around the globe concerning young adults with no pre-existing conditions in critical condition and in the ICU because of the virus. No one is “immune.”
Myth: There is a vaccine available, there’s just a short supply.
Fact: There is currently no vaccine available for coronavirus. WHO officials say over 20 coronavirus vaccines are in development, but even on an accelerated schedule, officials estimate that a vaccine may be available in 12 to 18 months. This would be “insanely fast,” and there is a debate in the scientific community regarding the safety of implementing such accelerated timelines. Demonstrating the efficacy and safety of a vaccine takes time, with the average time from pre-clinical development to approval being 15 to 20 years. Development generally begins in laboratories, and then moves to animal testing. If the vaccine is found to be safe in animals, and studies suggest safety in humans, clinical trials are established.
There are three phases of clinical trials: Phase 1, which includes somewhere around 20 to 100 healthy volunteers, primarily establishes dosing and identifies side effects; Phase 2, which involves several hundred volunteers and provides additional information on side effects and dosing; and Phase 3, which involves hundreds or thousands of volunteers. In Phase 3, effectiveness and safety are evaluated by comparing vaccinated people to those who have received a placebo or another vaccine. These steps are important to ensuring vaccine safety and effectiveness. That said, given the present circumstances, it is key to mobilize resources and accelerate timelines as much as is practicable while taking steps to ensure that public health and safety is not compromised in the process.
Myth: Wearing a face mask will not protect you from the virus.
Fact: Guidance from public health officials on this topic has changed over time, and likely will continue to change. Currently, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Examples of such public settings include grocery stores and pharmacies. While cloth masks are recommended, they are not as effective as masks typically used in healthcare settings.
Surgical masks are not 100% effective at protecting you from the virus because they don’t fit snugly on your face and small airborne particles carrying the virus can penetrate the mask. However this type of mask is recommended by the CDC for infected individuals as it will help protect others from exposure when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. N95 masks are tight-fitting masks that filter out 95% of particles from the air, and wearing one is more likely to protect you from the virus. However, CDC recommends them for healthcare workers only, since they are difficult to wear properly and can increase your risk of infection if you touch your face to adjust the mask. There is also a shortage of these masks among healthcare workers, who need them to stay safe while treating patients. If you have any such masks, many local hospitals are accepting donations.
Myth: Avoid buying anything from China. COVID-19 can survive on the surface of packages.
Fact: Whether you get a package from China or elsewhere, there is arguably a risk of infection if the virus is on a surface that you touch. For example, you may encounter items that were handled by an infected person at the local grocery store. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that COVID-19 remains on surfaces and in aerosols for several hours to days, and suggests that people may contract the virus through the air or after touching contaminated objects. Consider wearing gloves while removing and discarding packaging before bringing items into your house, avoid touching your face and of course… wash your hands!
Myth: You will only catch the virus if you’re near an infected person for 10 minutes or longer.
Fact: Whether or not you become infected depends on a number of factors. As previously noted, it is possible to contract the virus by touching contaminated objects. It is also, of course, possible to contract the virus directly from an infected person. But there is no evidence suggesting that there is a minimum period of exposure before infection occurs. COVID-19 is highly infectious. According to the WHO, the reproductive number or the average number of people that are likely infected from a person with COVID-19 is between 2-2.5 (higher than influenza). Consider the CDC recommendations to remain 6 to 10 feet away from others.
Myth: The virus hates heat and sunlight, and will start to die off when temperatures rise in the summer.
Fact: There is no evidence that the pandemic will end simply because of rising temperatures. There are preliminary data suggesting that the virus thrives in colder and drier climates, which is not entirely surprising as this has been seen with other coronaviruses, including MERS. However, many warmer places currently are seeing large outbreaks. There is still limited evidence and debate among the infectious disease community on this issue, and either way, measures such as social distancing and hand-washing still need to be practiced since the virus will not simply “die off.”
Myth: The outbreak began in China after people ate bat soup.
Fact: We do not know exactly how this outbreak began. Scientists have been researching the origin of this virus and seem to agree that it originated in wildlife. The genome sequence of COVID-19 closely resembles that of coronavirus in bats, but it is possible other animals may have been involved in transmitting the disease to humans.
Myth: The virus is just a cover-up for something the government doesn’t want us to know about.
Fact: COVID-19 is a global pandemic. Our actions during this time impact not only ourselves but those around us. It’s time for us all to come together and recognize this is a serious threat to our community.
- Nakasian and her colleague Angelika Manthripragada offer professional insight into the current global pandemic.