As the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has been declared a world pandemic, myths, misconceptions, and misinformation are spreading almost as fast, with public health officials and medical professionals working double time to debunk them. Knowing the myths about coronavirus and its symptoms means being able to calm down your panicky coworker before they spread misinformation themselves.
“There are many myths surrounding COVID-19, and that is to be expected given there has been so much media exposure," Dr. Charlotte Hespe, M.B.B.S., DCH., a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, tells Bustle. Part of the issue is that scientists are still investigating many aspects of COVID-19, including exactly how it spreads, how severe it can be, and how to treat it. Without concrete answers, misconceptions can flourish.
Myths about coronavirus might start out based on misunderstood statistics, and balloon into a completely different storyline. "Most of the time, these myths are fragmented information coming out of a completely misinformed source," says Dr. Andres Romero, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Experts recommend getting your news about coronavirus from official bodies like the World Health Organization, and researching all new information and advice rather than taking it as gospel.
Here are nine myths about coronavirus doctors want you to know about.
1. "Coronavirus Is Extremely Deadly"
Even if you are diagnosed with novel coronavirus, it's very unlikely that you'll die, experts say. As of March 12, some scientists say the death rate of coronavirus may be closer to 1%; it's a difficult number to assess when many people may be contracting mild forms of the virus and recovering without being tested. Scientific American reported on March 10 that one of the main reasons that Italy has had such a high mortality rate is its aging population; a high proportion of patients who died were in their 80s or 90s.
It's also not likely at all that young people who contract the disease will die of it. "For those under 50 years old, the mortality rate is 0.2% and possibly lower," Dr. Allon Mordel M.D., the medical director at K Health and physician at the emergency department of NYU Langone Hospital. As coronavirus spreads and more young people contract it, it may rise or fall.
2. "Coronavirus Feels Just Like The Flu"
If you feel the pluck of a sore throat and a bit of a sniffle, there's no reason to panic. Flu and coronavirus may have similar symptoms, but they're actually quite different.
"It’s a lung disease, not a stuffy nose disease," Donald G. McNeil Jr., an infectious-disease reporter for the New York Times, said in the paper's daily coronavirus briefing. "Ninety percent of people get a fever, 80% get a dry cough, and then it drops down to 30% get shortness of breath and malaise."
"One important distinction is that while the flu typically does not cause shortness of breath unless it has progressed to pneumonia, shortness of breath is a common symptom of coronavirus," Ramzi Yacoub, chief pharmacy officer at SingleCare, tells Bustle. If you have the standard flu symptoms — fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, and sore throat — but don't feel unable to breathe, it's probable that you're dealing with the common influenza virus.
If you're concerned about your risk, or have traveled to or had contact with somebody traveling from a high-risk country in the past 14 days, it's a good idea to call your medical provider to assess your risk as an individual. When in doubt, stay home from work and minimize your contact with others.
3. "Specialized Masks Are Essential To Deal With Coronavirus"
You may have seen professional respirator masks, known as N95 masks, everywhere, but you should stop before you buy a packet for everybody you know. "N95 masks are intended to be worn by health care professionals — they are not intended or useful for the public," Dr. Natasha Bhuyan M.D., a family physician with One Medical, tells Bustle.
There's a reason they're only meant to be worn by people dealing directly with the illness: They might not work for anybody else, plus you need training in order to fit them correctly. Right now, health care workers are told to wear N95 masks, eye protection, gowns, and gloves to reduce their risk.
The same advice goes for regular surgical masks. "Based on current available information, we can't say surgical masks add any additional benefit in the prevention of acquiring 2019 novel coronavirus," Romero says. The CDC recommends people who are already sick wear surgical masks to prevent spreading the virus. Everybody else should practice regular hygiene, like washing hands regularly and not touching their nose or mouth, rather than relying on masks to reduce their risk of infection.
4. “Don’t Go Out To Eat During The Coronavirus Outbreak”
While it's important to be prepared and cautious about the threat of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., that doesn't mean avoiding going out to eat, unless you're in an area that's in lockdown or have been told to self-isolate. It's not believed that COVID-19 is foodborne, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Further, as coronavirus has spread, so have incidents of racism and xenophobia against people of Asian descent. Eater reports that businesses in New York's Chinatown have reported severe drops in traffic as a result of the coronavirus, which makes a major difference in the livelihoods of small-business owners.
"It is heartbreaking to see empty restaurants in cities because of COVID-19 fears," Hespe tells Bustle. "Please book a table at your local Chinese-owned restaurant and enjoy a delicious meal."
5. "You Should Disinfect Yourself With Chlorine To Prevent Coronavirus"
All kinds of homemade remedies and old wives' tales are circulating about proper virus protection, but many of them are useless or harmful. "Hand dryers, spraying chlorine on yourself, and UV disinfection lamps on your skin are not effective ways to kill coronavirus," Bhuyan says. "Further, chlorine, alcohol, and UV radiation can irritate your skin." The best advice for avoiding coronavirus right now is to wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer regularly, cough or sneeze into a tissue and dispose of it, and avoid touching your mouth or face.
6. "The Flu Vaccine Doesn't Matter For Coronavirus"
Flu vaccines may be neglected in the wake of coronavirus panic, but they shouldn't be. Dr. David Weber M.D., medical director of infection prevention at UNC Medical Center, tells Bustle that it's not too late to get your flu shot, and if you haven't, you should. "Flu is a much bigger risk, particularly in the United States, than this virus, so go get your flu shot," he says. While the current vaccination carries no protection against coronavirus, getting vaccinated will mean that you're protected against other, more common respiratory viruses.
7. "Everybody With Coronavirus Needs To Be Hospitalized"
For the vast majority of people with coronavirus, it represents an annoyance for a week or so and a relatively painless recovery, similar to a flu. "While there is no cure, early supportive care does play an important role in management: staying hydrated, eating well, and over-the-counter remedies to assist with cough, mucus, and pain," Mordel says. Mild cases need to be isolated at home to stop infecting others as much as possible. Only people with much more aggressive symptoms need IV fluids, oxygen, and other serious treatments in the hospital.
While hospitalization won't be necessary for most people with COVID-19, early identification of coronavirus is important as public health officials work to contain the virus. Even if you don't feel particularly bad, if you have fever, cough, and shortness of breath, it's a good idea to call your GP (don't just show up if you think you're ill) and talk about getting tested.
8. "Just Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer To Prevent Coronavirus Spreading"
As people have taken precautions to prepare for the possible spread of coronavirus in their communities, stores are reporting some shortages of basic hygiene supplies like hand sanitizer. Though the CDC says washing your hands is still the best defense against virus germs, people took to social media to spread DIY hand sanitizer recipes. These, it turns out, are not a great replacement for the real deal. HuffPost UK reported that there's little evidence these at-home versions work, and Public Health England confirmed that this workaround is not recommended.
9. "Everybody Might Have Coronavirus & Not Realize It"
According to research published in Annals Of Internal Medicine on March 10, it's possible for people to have coronavirus and be asymptomatic, or not show any symptoms. These people may have the coronavirus, but it hasn't turned into the illness COVID-19, which is what causes symptoms. Researchers told Nature in their rolling updates on coronavirus that these asymptomatic cases appear to be rare thus far, and it's not currently known whether people without any symptoms can spread the coronavirus.
It can take between five and 14 days for people to show symptoms, and around 80% of people with coronavirus will only have mild symptoms. Tom Hanks, who has tested positive for the virus along with his wife Rita Wilson, described their symptoms as "body aches," "chills that came and went," and "slight fevers."
10. "You Can't Get Coronavirus If You're Black"
Across the internet, rumors have been spreading that Black people can't get coronavirus — sometimes spread jokingly, sometimes not. Once again, the virus doesn't discriminate based on race. "The CDC or WHO has in no way concluded that any one race is at lower risk of contracting the virus or that one race will be cured easier or quicker," Reuters reported.
Additionally, as CityLab reported, there's a long history of Black people receiving substandard medical care as a result of myths like this one. "While some may argue that the jokes, at least, are harmless, U.S. history evinces how unsubstantiated claims about race-based resilience to disease have led to devastating outcomes, particularly for African Americans," CityLab wrote.
11. "You Can Get Tested For Coronavirus If You Give Blood"
With a significant shortage of coronavirus tests available in the U.S., many people are desperate to confirm if their symptoms are, in fact, due to COVID-19. A rumor floating around the week of March 9 suggested that people who give blood can be tested for coronavirus; the Red Cross confirms that this is, in fact, false.
"Based on available information, detection of SARS-CoV-2 in blood samples has only been seen in severely ill patients, not in asymptomatic individuals," Jessa Merrill, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, tells Bustle. "Additionally, there's no test to screen donations for the coronavirus and other respiratory viruses, and there is no evidence that this coronavirus can be transmitted by blood transfusions."
Public health officials stress that since there's no standard treatment for coronavirus, testing should be reserved for the most severe cases so as to lessen the burden on our healthcare system. Another way to lessen the burden on hospitals? Give blood. The American Red Cross says that thanks to widespread office closures, they're facing around 8,000 uncollected blood donations. You can make an appointment to donate blood by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).
Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., a family physician
Dr. Charlotte Hespe, M.B.B.S., DCH, a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
Dr. Allon Mordel, M.D., the medical director at K Health and physician at the emergency department of NYU Langone Hospital
Dr. Andres Romero, M.D., an infection disease specialist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica
Dr. David Weber, M.D., medical director of infection prevention at UNC Medical Center
Jessa Merrill, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross
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