Story at a glance

  • When it comes to coronavirus, there's a lot of fear and misinformation circulating.
  • People are hoarding supplies like face masks and hand sanitizer.
  • Governments are also issuing travel bans and trade restrictions.

With more than 160 cases, the COVID-19 situation has ramped up in the U.S. It’s important to not panic as if we’re in an apocalyptic movie and stay informed. Below are some myths about the new virus, called the SARS-CoV-2, that causes the COVID-19 illness and viruses in general.

Myth: You need a face mask to protect you from getting infected

People have been scrambling to buy up face masks in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Officials are recommending that only health professionals caring for the sick and people who suspect that they are sick should wear them.

Not all face masks will be equally effective in blocking or holding in body fluids. Flimsy masks often won’t cut it. Experts recommend people who are infected to use masks that make a seal around the nose and mouth so that there is less chance of viral escape.

Face masks are not easy to wear properly. If you are prone to touching your face, especially along the edges of the mask where it may feel most uncomfortable, that reduces the effectiveness of wearing a mask. It can get hot under the mask, so people may take them off periodically to cool off, also reducing the effectiveness of the mask.

Even if you are wearing a face mask properly, you may be wearing it unnecessarily. SARS-CoV-2 does not seem to be transmitted through the air, meaning the air you breathe is most likely totally fine. The virus is mostly infecting people via contact with sick individuals or surfaces and then touching their own faces. This means that washing your hands regularly would provide more protection than donning a mask.

For people caring for the sick, the chances that they are exposed to the virus are much higher than the average person. They are also more likely to get coughed on or otherwise be exposed to body fluids that harbor the virus. It is important for people in these higher risk situations to wear masks. The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a guide for using masks for caretakers of sick individuals in the context of COVID-19.

Myth: Using hand sanitizer will kill the virus

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers have been shown to be relatively ineffective against noroviruses. But some studies have shown that these can help reduce influenza A (H1N1) virus. Another study showed that soap and water were better than three different alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers might help prevent you from getting COVID-19, but it might not. We just don’t know for sure yet.

On the other hand, products that contain chlorine compounds such as sodium hypochlorite seem to be effective in getting rid of viruses. But there’s no direct evidence that sanitizing agents like those in Lysol or Clorox can kill the novel coronavirus of this current outbreak. There may be evidence that those products can kill similar pathogens, but none of them have been tested against SARS-CoV-2 specifically.

Stocking up on hand sanitizer may not be helpful, and good ol’ soap and water may be your best bet.


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Myth: Banning travel can prevent spread of the virus

First off, travel bans are different from quarantines. Quarantines involve isolating people who are at risk of infection or who are infected.

WHO does not recommend travel or trade restrictions. Travel and trade bans can make the negative effects of an outbreak on economies worse. Official health guidelines also don’t recommend travel bans because they could prevent volunteers and supplies from getting to where they need to go.

“Banning travel from China is unlikely to keep the new coronavirus out of the United States, especially as the geographic footprint of the epidemic continues to rapidly expand,” writes epidemiologist Jennifer B. Nuzzo at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security in the Washington Post. “This virus is simply moving too quickly and spreading too quietly for us to assume that we know where in the world all cases are.”

Travel bans can also disincentivize people from reporting cases and governments from sharing information about their outbreaks, writes Nuzzo. We should instead be focusing on what we can do, like treating and preventing more cases.

Myth: You should avoid people of Asian ethnicity because they are more likely to have coronavirus

In the U.S. and in other places around the world, people of Asian ethnicity have been experiencing racism by people who suspect them of being sick with coronavirus. Earlier in the outbreak, people who had a history of travel to China were more likely to come down with COVID-19.

However, now most of the new cases in the U.S. do not have a travel history to hotspot areas like China or South Korea. This means there is community spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and anyone, not only Asian people or people who recently traveled to Asia, could be infected. Only suspecting people of Asian ethnicities could mean that we miss a lot of chances to protect ourselves from getting COVID-19. What’s more important are tracing social contacts and hand-washing behavior.

Myth: The virus came from people eating bat soup

There’s no evidence yet that the virus originated in bats. Early on, some researchers speculated that SARS-CoV-2 is similar to viruses in snakes and pangolins. But we are far from determining the origin of the virus, and in truth we may never really find out the animal source of the virus.

For example, it’s taken decades of research to get closer to the origins of HIV. We have some ideas for the sources of Ebola viruses, but nothing is for certain yet. It could take years of more investigation and research to determine the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and by that time the danger may have already passed.

Myth: Flu is more dangerous

This one involves subtlety. Seasonal flu is more contagious and infects more people globally, but it is less deadly than COVID-19. Any one person in the U.S. is more likely to get sick with the flu than the coronavirus, at least for now. But the death rate for COVID-19 is higher than the death rate for flu. Seasonal flu has a mortality rate of about 0.1–0.2 percent, compared to 3.4 percent for the novel coronavirus as reported by WHO.

Most cases of COVID-19 are mild. One study estimates that about 16 percent of cases in China led to severe illness. Health officials are asking that people who think they may be sick with the virus stay home and self-isolate from social settings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made a guide for implementing home care for people who have COVID-19 but don’t require hospitalization.

The flu is less likely to kill you, but you are more likely to get it. Your chances of getting COVID-19 in the U.S. is currently low, but the death rate is higher than for flu.

What you should know

The COVID-19 situation is becoming serious in the U.S. If you are concerned about getting it, wash your hands regularly and avoid large gatherings if you can. The virus seems to be able to spread without being detected, and people may be asymptomatic for a long period of time.

For more information, especially if you are traveling, check the CDC and WHO websites.


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Published on Mar 05, 2020