An alarming outbreak of a novel coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 has set off a flurry of myths and misinformation on the internet.
As more confirmed cases continue to be reported, and health professionals research the best ways to contain the illness, public health scientists are working to defeat the rapid spread of rumors.
“We need a vaccine against misinformation,” said Mike Ryan, MD, the executive director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) health emergencies program, at a briefing on the coronavirus earlier this month.
He’s not alone in this opinion. Last week, health scientists published a statement in The Lancet expressing concern about the misinformation surrounding the origins of the outbreak.
What’s popularly known as the coronavirus is a large group of viruses that have been around for a while. They cause respiratory infections like the common cold but can also cause Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). As of February 11, the virus is known as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, shortened to SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus virus disease 2019.
Everyday Health spoke with experts to better understand the disease, how it is spread, and what preventive measures people can take. Here are answers to some of the most common coronavirus questions.
1. Will Wearing a Face Mask Protect You From Catching the Coronavirus?
Face masks alone will not protect against the new coronavirus.
“Face masks worn by the public are not completely effective, as many people wear them improperly and stick their hands underneath them to scratch their face,” says Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore. “They are effective in healthcare settings in which providers wear them appropriately to care for patients with respiratory viruses.”
Only medical-grade N-95 or N-100 face masks work, says Bruce Y. Lee, MD, a professor of health policy at CUNY School of Public Health in New York City and the founder of Public Health Informatics Computational and Operation Research (PHICOR). These particular masks are thicker, and they filter out more airborne particles than the standard surgical ones you usually see people wearing.
WHO recommends wearing a mask if you are coughing or sneezing or have a fever, to prevent spreading infection. If you do not have these symptoms, you do not have to wear a mask.
According to Dr. Lee, there are a few things to be aware of when using a face mask:
- Clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water before and after use.
- You must keep a snug seal (facial hair can interfere with the seal).
- It’s uncomfortable to wear, but you must avoid touching the mask while using it.
- If the mask gets wet, replace it, and do not reuse single-use masks.
- Dispose of the mask in a closed bin.
2. When Should You Start Panicking?
The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Redfield, MD, told CNN the new coronavirus that erupted in China might spread in the first several days without symptoms, and that “this virus is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year, and … eventually, the virus will find a foothold, and we will get community-based transmission.”
Cases of community spread, meaning the person had no known contact with an infected person and had not traveled to a region where the virus is spreading, have now been confirmed in the United States and Germany.
While this may sound somewhat nerve-racking, the critical thing to remember about COVID-19 is that it seems to spread like other respiratory pathogens, says Lee. When people have the flu, they experience similar symptoms. Pathogens can spread on surfaces, and that’s where this virus is transmitted, so the prevention strategies are identical: Wash your hands, avoid touching your eyes, and keep a reasonable distance from anybody who’s sick.
People don’t have to change their behavior drastically but should instead keep doing what they’ve been doing (as if it’s a regular flu), explains Lee. If you do start to feel symptomatic, make sure you don’t go to work and risk infecting others.
“We also need to remember it’s a tiny fraction of the global population [who are infected],” says Lee.
3. Are There Extreme Measures That Can Help?
Extreme measures like drinking bleach will not help and can be dangerous. Other tactics, such as wearing a scarf around your mouth, will probably not be all that helpful either. The most common transmission point is in your hands. When you touch things and then touch your mouth or eyes, the pathogens can enter your body.
Our experts unanimously agree that the best preventive actions are to wash one’s hands frequently.
According to Lee, people need to begin washing their hands more effectively — for at least 20 seconds while reciting the alphabet slowly.
Smoking, taking traditional herbal remedies, and self-medication like antibiotics will also not help prevent the contraction of the disease, according to the WHO.
The best advice is to keep calm and educate yourself about the flu and the flu vaccine, and to make use of reputable resources about COVID-19.
4. Should You Stop Eating Chinese Food?
Among some of the fears floating around the internet is the idea that Chinese food isn’t safe to eat because it may carry the virus. According to Dr. Adalja, there is no specific dietary advice. Concern about Chinese products like tuna was also something Lee heard at a recent public information session. Still, there’s nothing that suggests that COVID-19 can last in food, especially in packaged foods because of the heating process they go through, he explains.
“People jump to the conclusion that eating something strange was the cause, but there are other ways it can spread from animals to humans,” says Lee.
A zoonotic disease is spread from animals to humans, and it can be caused by viruses, parasites, bacteria, and fungi. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats, according to the CDC. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and now with this new virus (named SARS-CoV-2).
There was some conjecture that the virus initially spread from snakes and bats because the first patients showed a link to seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China. But later, patients reportedly had no exposure to the animal market, suggesting person-to-person spread.
“This is further evidence that our society is too race-based,” says Lee. Instead of viewing the illness as a connective thing that affects all kinds of people, some are labeling it as based on a specific population group, he says.
“These viruses are not discriminating. If you see an Asian American walking down the street and immediately think that person is carrying the virus, that’s wrong. In the past, people used to blanket whole groups of people, as with HIV, but that makes no sense, and it hurts people,” he says.