Last updated on 20 April 2020.
It seems like every time we turn around, we’re bombarded by news about the coronavirus, especially since the World Health Organization recently announced that we are now facing a pandemic… meaning it is widespread.
The fact that Major League Baseball has announced that the season start date is being delayed — well, now it’s getting serious.
In light of these events, I’ve been asked to provide my take on the situation. So, here it goes.
A colleague once asked me, “You’re in public health — what should people be most concerned about? Is it diet? Not exercising enough?”
I responded, “Well, what truly keeps me up at night are these so-called ‘superbugs’. Infections that spread really quickly, that we’ve never seen before and that we can’t treat.” While coronavirus might seem to meet these criteria, I actually don’t worry too much about coronavirus. I repeat, I don’t think it’s one of these superbugs. Instead, while it is a new bug so to speak, I think we don’t need to lose sleep over it just yet.
There are some misconceptions out there about this virus — so, let me first describe what it is: first, I should mention that coronaviruses are common. The common cold is a type of coronavirus. The trouble with this one is that it’s a new strain of the virus. But, if you can believe it, it isn’t the first new coronavirus strain we’ve experienced.
A new one seems to come along once every 10 years or so. This is partly why I, personally, am not panicking just yet.
SARS Coronavirus (2002 – 2003)
I don’t know if you remember, but in 2002 and 2003, there was a type of coronavirus going around called SARS (which stands for, “severe acute respiratory syndrome”).
Luckily, there haven’t been any reported cases of SARS since 2004, which is why we don’t hear much about it anymore. Now, coronaviruses, in general, seem to have something in common: they like to cause some havoc in the respiratory system (basically, the lungs and our airways). Symptoms of coronaviruses often involve coughing and shortness of breath along with possibly a fever and feelings of fatigue.
Again, this version of the coronavirus is a different strain than the SARS one we saw in 2002 and 2003, so in order to distinguish it from the other coronaviruses, you might hear this year’s strain referred to as COVID-19 or coronavirus disease-19.
COVID-19, in particular, thrives in the cells that line our airways which again, is why respiratory symptoms are common with this illness. We don’t quite know how it’s spread. Recently, some health professionals believed that the virus could linger in the air for a prolonged period of time. Most believe that it is spread in the same way that other viruses spread: through contact with those that are already sick. We just don’t know how contagious it is.
How is One Exposed to COVID-19?
Exposure to it can come in different ways. One way may be direct contact, like exposure to their coughs and sneezes. This is why there’s the recommendation to avoid places where large groups of people are meeting. The more people, the higher the chance that you may be exposed, because someone may be carrying it and more potential exposure to others’ coughs and sneezes.
Again, since we don’t quite know just how contagious COVID-19, it’s best to avoid being exposed to it. The unknown is often quite scary. So, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Now, what about the whole “wearing a facemask” thing? You don’t need to wear one of those to protect yourself — instead, it’s advised that those that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 wear a facemask if they’re around others that haven’t been infected.
The other way viruses spread, not just COVID-19, would be from touching the surface of an inanimate (think, non-living) object. These would be things like doorknobs, computer keyboards, cellphones, grocery store carts, etc. So, this is why you keep hearing how important it is to wash your hands, especially before you eat or touch your face. We are constantly touching inanimate objects — we can’t go a day without touching a doorknob, our cellphone, our computers, etc. But simply touching these objects, it doesn’t mean we automatically get sick.
Instead, the virus may get on our hands, survive there for a while, and then if we touch our eyes, nose, ears or mouth, the virus now has a way to enter the body. That’s how we can become infected. If we wash our hands regularly, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time, we dramatically reduce the chances that we will become infected. Hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol may be a nice backup if soap and water are unavailable.
This simulator by the Washington Post shows the power of social distancing in halting the transmission of viruses like COVID-19.
It's thought that the virus doesn’t survive long on inanimate objects, so most health professionals don’t believe this to be the most common way it’s spread. Also because it’s unlikely that you would get COVID-19 by consuming prepackaged foods, for this same reason. (UPDATE: A CNBC article posted yesterday mentioned a US study which found that the virus was detectable for 3 to 24 hours on inanimate objects, and that the amount of the virus left on surfaces decreases over time.)
COVID-19 and Pets
With regard to one case in Hong Kong where a 17 year old dog tested weakly positive for COVID-19, a medical source stated it was “very unlikely” that the dog died from the virus taking into consideration its advanced age and other underlying illnesses.
So please do not abandon your pets in a fit of panic — it is highly unlikely that they have COVID-19 or can spread the virus. The virus is mainly spread from person to person, according to the CDC.
Some health authorities and veterinarians do err on the side of caution and advise practicing good hygiene when caring for pets (i.e. do not kiss your dog or cat on the lips; wash your hands thoroughly after contact with your pet; etc.). This is because the virus could potentially linger on pet fur, a frequently touched surface when you live with a pet.
What is the Coronavirus Death Rate?
It’s estimated that the death rate from coronavirus, especially for non-elderly, is anywhere from 2-3%. Meaning, if 100 people had coronavirus, 2 to 3 of them would likely succumb to it. Those most at-risk from these types of complications are older adults and those with serious chronic conditions like lung disease, heart disease, or diabetes.
Here’s the deal: many people are probably walking around with COVID-19 in their systems right now and are perfectly fine. Their immune systems, their body’s defense against things like this, is keeping them from experiencing any symptoms. The seasonal flu that goes around every year kills about 30,000 people every year.
What Masks Should I Wear?
I’m sure many of you are wondering whether the facemask you're currently using is providing any protection at all.
Recently, a listener asked about their 3M mask that was built to filter out heavy metals and harmful particles like asbestos, specifically. But, it wasn’t tested against COVID-19. I suppose it would need to be tested. So, I really couldn’t say for sure.
Instead, the CDC recommends we use face coverings to help prevent those who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. The household masks many are using are probably not providing as much protection as the aforementioned 3M mask. That is most likely due to the fact that the 3M type of mask creates a better seal around your nose and mouth.
If you are interested in making your own homemade face cover, the CDC says that materials made from cotton, bandanas, and t-shirts can be used to make them. The CDC’s website shows you how to do this.
Oh, and it’s recommended that these be worn when keeping social distance is difficult like in line at the grocery store or at the pharmacy. When you wear the face covering, it should:
- fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
- be secured in place
- include multiple layers of fabric (they show you how to do this on the CDC’s website)
- allow you to breathe easily
- be washed thoroughly and machine dried without getting damaged
Stay safe, please.
Precautions to Take
So, what’s the bottom line? Again, this isn’t the superbug that keeps me up at night. But, for now, it’s good to be cautious.
Go ahead and avoid places where there are 250 or more people in an enclosed space, wash your hands thoroughly before eating or touching your face, and do the other things you would normally do to keep your immune system healthy.
If you go to the gym regularly, for the time being, consider performing some at-home exercises.
If you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, it’s best to contact a health professional if you develop a fever along with a cough or difficulty breathing.