On March 15, the National Safety Council posted an urgent tweet quashing rumors about a national lockdown—because, to be clear, there is NO such mandated order right now in the U.S. However, eight states have issued a stay home order. That’s just one example of why it’s so important to dispel COVID-19 falsehoods the moment they fly, and, yes, go viral.
Between 24-7 breaking-news reports and your worried Facebook friends, there’s no escaping the chatter about the new coronavirus. The widespread fear of contracting a potentially serious virus with no known treatment is contributing to what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls an “infodemic” of myths, misinformation, and bad advice.
Here, we separate fiction from fact—or, at the very least, the most-up-to-date information on the virus that science can offer as of today. We’ll update this regularly as new discoveries become known.
MYTH 1: COVID-19 Is Just Like the Flu
Both COVID-19 and influenza are highly infectious and transmissible respiratory viruses that are spread from person-to-person by respiratory droplets released by coughing and sneezing. But COVID-19 is NOT “just like the flu. In fact, there are several crucial differences that make the current COVID-19 pandemic a public health emergency.
- For starters, COVID-19 is far more contagious than the flu. Experts believe that every person with COVID-19 will infect another 2.2 other people, compared to 1.2 other people for seasonal flu, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
- What’s more, people with COVID-19 may be contagious longer. With flu, people are typically contagious up to 24 hours before they become symptomatic and between five to seven days after the onset symptoms. According to John Swartzberg, M.D., clinical professor, emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, “We don’t know enough about COVID-19 to make definitive statements yet. But by the time someone becomes symptomatic, they’re highly contagious, and we certainly know that people are contagious for at least a week, and possibly longer.”
- Unlike the flu, there is no immunity or vaccine against COVID-19. “A certain percentage of the population already has immunity [to influenza] from encountering similar strains in the past,” says Dr. Swartzberg. “Whereas no human being, prior to late 2019, has ever encountered COVID-19. Not only does it spread with more facility than flu, it has a much wider audience of people who can get infected.”
- COVID-19 appears to have a mortality rate that’s 10 times that of the flu. Experts estimate that for every 1,000 cases of COVID-19, there are 10 to 34 deaths. The fatality rate for seasonal flu is 1 death per every 1,000 cases. For context, that’s 0.1% vs. roughly 1%.
MYTH 2: COVID-19 Lives for a Few Hours Outside the Body
The truth may be even more concerning. In a study published on March 11, 2020, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers from Princeton University and UCLA reported that COVID-19 can live in the air for up to three hours in the rooms of infected patients. Research is still very preliminary on this, and airborne transmission does not appear to be the primary, or even likely, path to infection. Still, healthcare workers who are treating COVID-19 patients (and anyone caring for a loved one at home) need to take special precautions, including wearing protective equipment and/or face masks.
Another new study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection reported that CV-19 “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass, or plastic for up to nine days.” When it comes to assumptions about COVID-19, experts advise erring on the side of caution. “We know that most of these respiratory viruses typically survive up to 48 to 72 hours,” says Dean Winslow, M.D., professor of medicine at the Stanford University Medical Center and a specialist in infectious diseases. “But I’m going to assume that nine days may be more accurate. That means that regular cleaning and disinfection is important, but even more important is following the recommendations to frequently wash your hands with soap and water, and avoid touching your face, nose, and eyes.”
MYTH 3: COVID-19 Is a Danger Only to People Who Are 60+ and/or Already Sick
The reality? COVID-19 can be dangerous to anyone, even if younger people who are otherwise healthy face much lower odds of serious illness or death if infected. Data from the initial outbreak in China reported mortality risk for people under age 60 was low—1.3%. That rate rose with each decade of life, peaking at 14.8% for people over 80.
However, while mortality rates predict the risk of death, they don’t necessarily reflect the number of people who require hospitalization—or a ventilator—in order to recover. On March 14, 2020, French health ministry official Jerome Salomon reported the surprising news that of the 300 to 400 COVID-19 patients being treated in intensive care units in Parisian hospitals, around half were under the age of 65.
Findings from a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine that tracked 1,099 COVID-19 patients in China also challenge the notion that people under 60 will only have mild symptoms from a COVID-19 infection, reporting 47 as the median age of hospitalized patients. This suggests that even younger patients can develop the most serious complications of COVID-19, which include pneumonia, sepsis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
According to Dr. Winslow, “The risk goes up with age and comorbidities, but that does not mean that younger people are spared. We’ve had patients here at Stanford who are significantly younger than 60 who have become extremely ill with COVID-19.”
According to analysis done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. experience largely resembles China’s, with the risk for serious disease and death from COVID-19 rising with age. But in an important qualification, the researchers reported that millennials are not invincible. The new data show that up to one-fifth of infected people ages 20-44 have been hospitalized, including 2%-4% who required treatment in an intensive care unit.
So, deep breath here, because we know: This is probably confirming your worst nightmare. What's important to keep in mind is that the vast majority of healthy young people who are infected do recover without serious intervention.
MYTH 4: Infants and Children Can’t Get COVID-19
“Children are not immune—they can become infected with COVID-19,” says Caesar Djavaherian, M.D., an emergency medicine and urgent care physician, and cofounder and medical director of urgent care network CarbonHealth. “What we are seeing, however, is that the disease burden is much less in kids, because they have a different immunological response. That puts them at a much lower risk of complications and mortality when compared to adults.”
However, a new Chinese study suggests babies and preschoolers my be at risk for experiencing serious complications from the virus, although research is limited on this. All children should be instructed to practice good hand hygiene and participate in social distancing to prevent transmission of COVID-19, says Dr. Djavaherian. “Remember, children can be carriers and infect other people, including those who are at a high risk of complications.”
MYTH 5: The “Flattening the Curve” Hype Is Just Media Hysteria
Social distancing—minimizing or avoiding close contact between people—is essential right now, according to the CDC, which says the best way of preventing illness is to avoid being exposed to the coronavirus in the first place. This life-saving and proven public-health approach can help slow the speed and rate at which people become infected—and protect our already strained healthcare system.
That’s because as more people are diagnosed with COVID-19, it’s estimated that a minimum of 10% of them will require hospitalization, according to Chinese data. And more Americans will be diagnosed. The CDC’s updated, best and worst-case scenarios estimate that between 160 and 214 million people in the U.S. could be infected, and anywhere from 2.4 to 21 million people could require hospitalization. The U.S. currently has about 925,000 hospital beds; with just 103,900 intensive care units. And on average, around two-thirds of hospital beds are already full at any given time.
Given those estimates, all hospital beds in the U.S. could be filled as early as the beginning of May, and hospitals could be overwhelmed with a surge of COVID-19 patients who need round-the-clock and/or intensive care. Along with far too few hospital beds for anyone who needs care, ventilators, respirators, and surgical masks currently available, there is also a shortage of frontline health care providers—who could get sick, too.
The social distancing measures being implemented at this time are currently the only way to significantly slow the spread of COVID-19. Embracing the practice on a personal level includes avoiding handshakes and hugs, and staying away from groups of 10 people or more. Formal social-distancing policies are being put into place every day across the U.S., with the cancellation of large events and closures of workplaces, school systems, and, in some areas, non-essential businesses.
Yes, it's disruptive. We know it's even a little lonely. But it's the one thing every single person can do to help.
MYTH 6: All Hand Sanitizers Kill the COVID-19 Virus
Public health officials recommend frequent hand washing—that means washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water—as the most effective form of hand hygiene to protect against COVID-19. The CDC recommends hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
Just know that all hand sanitizers are NOT created equally when it comes to killing the virus that causes COVID-19. Make sure your hand sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol—look for “ethyl alcohol" on the label. Avoid products that use benzalkonium chloride as an antiseptic; the CDC has reported that it may be less effective against COVID-19.
You also need to make sure you are using hand sanitizer correctly:
- Apply the recommended amount to the palm of one hand.
- Rub your hands together.
- Rub the sanitizer over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are completely dry. This typically takes around 20 seconds.
MYTH 7: A Face Mask Protects You From COVID-19
The truth? Yes and no. While research shows that a regular face mask—correctly used, that is—can be highly effective at preventing viral infections, a mask does not offer full protection against COVID-19, or any virus, which can slip through gaps between the mask and the face. And, because your eyes are not covered, transmission can still occur if you touch them with contaminated hands.
The CDC and the WHO have shared the following recommendations regarding face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- If you are healthy, you should wear a mask if you are in public settings where it is difficult to maintain effective social distancing—like standing on line in busy pharmacies and grocery stores.
- You should also always wear a mask if you are taking care of someone with a COVID-19 infection, and they are unable to wear a mask.
- If you have suspected or confirmed COVID-19, you should wear a mask until you are isolated in a hospital or at home.
- If you wear a mask, wear it properly, making sure your nose and mouth are covered, and that there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
- Do not reuse single-use masks and dispose of the mask as soon as it becomes damp.
- Dispose of a used mask properly. That means being careful not to touch the front of the mask when you're removing it, throwing it away in a closed receptable, and immediately disinfecting your hands by washing or using hand sanitizer.
Keep in mind that to be effective, anyone wearing a mask also needs to practice good hand hygiene. And, please note: There's a difference between a face mask and what's known as a surgical N95 respirator, or medical respirator, which fully protects the wearer against infection. At this time, respirators are recommended only for use by healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients.
MYTH 8: Alternative Supplements and Remedies Can Prevent, Treat, or Cure COVID-19
Dr. Swartzberg debunks such myths: “There are no studies showing that any supplement has efficacy or is safe in people with COVID-19.” (We’re looking at you, Jim Bakker, and your supposed colloidal silver liquid cure.)
Beyond a lack of effectiveness, there’s also a basic concern about safety. Researchers simply don’t know which supplements are safe to use in patients with COVID-19. A good example is elderberry, the main ingredient of popular cold supplement Sambucol. While elderberry remedies have been shown to slightly reduce symptom duration in colds, researchers are cautioning that elderberry remedies may overstimulate the immune system, potentially contributing to the most serious COVID-19 complications. As a result, experts are suggesting that you exercise extreme caution before you take any supplements, given the lack of data on the effect they may have on COVID-19 symptoms and complications.
That being said, some physicians are recommending the use of zinc lozenges after infection. There is a possibility they may help, but it’s simply too early to know.
According to Dr. Swartzberg, the research is inconclusive. “There have been several studies, and half of them said zinc lozenges can reduce the signs and symptoms of a cold by a few hours to a day. Other studies showed no efficacy.”
Dr. Swartzberg adds a note of caution about zinc if you do decide to use it. “Don’t use zinc spray in the nose, because it can permanently damage the olfactory nerves,” affecting your sense of smell.
MYTH 9: Sipping Water Will Prevent COVID-19 Infection
You may have seen a post that claims to be from the Stanford Hospital Board that's spreading faster than even COVID-19 itself. The post, titled “Info Re COVID-19,” says that being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds without coughing is an effective way to test whether you have COVID-19, and that “drinking warm water is effective for all viruses.” Of particular note is the post’s FALSE claim that you should "take a few sips of water every 15 minutes at least. Why? Even if the virus gets into your mouth, drinking water or other liquids will wash them down through your throat and into the stomach. Once there, your stomach acid will kill all the virus."
Another viral meme flying around Facebook in recent days insists that "before it reaches the lungs" COVID-19 "remains in the throat for four days, and at this time the person begins to cough and have throat pains." The meme goes on to advise people to drink a lot of water and gargle with salt and vinegar to kill the virus—none of it backed up by science.
Suffice it say, none of this is true. And Stanford Hospital’s Dr. Winslow wants to make the public aware that not only is the first viral post NOT from Stanford, it’s also “totally preposterous!” Dr. Winslow encourages the public to instead go to the CDC for reliable information. “The CDC shares updates every day about COVID-19 guidelines, both for the public and health care workers. Rely on reputable sources, not fake information.”
MYTH 10: I Should Hoard Food, Supplies, and Medications
In short? Don’t do it. You may feel like you’re more in control of the situation by stashing a six-month supply of TP or hand sanitizer in your closet, but hoarding essentials results in widespread shortages—for everyone. It's also a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more shoppers find empty shelves, the more panic-buying increases.
The CDC recommends that you stock up on non-perishable food to have on hand in your home to minimize trips to stores. Think in terms of a week or so, not a month. That's because grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open. "The grocery supply chain is not going to shut down," Doug Baker told FoodNavigator-USA on March 16, 2020; he leads the crisis-management team at The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a trade group that represents food wholesalers and retailers across the country. Costco COO Ron Vachris added in The New York Times, “Our stores are getting stocked every day. Transportation is functioning, our suppliers are working around-the clock, and the flow of goods is strong.”
Even in hard-hit Italy—where mandatory home quarantine and widespread shutdowns have shuttered stores, restaurants, and businesses across the country—grocery stores and pharmacies are open.
Keep in mind, however, that things are not likely to be "normal" at your local grocery store for some time. You may not be able to get everything you want, or find your favorite brands. You’re also likely to encounter limits on how much you can buy. Many popular chains, including Walmart, Kroger, Publix, Albertson's, and Target, have started putting quantity limits on popular products such as hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper.
Check with your grocery or pharmacy before heading out. Some chains (such as Whole Foods and Publix, for example) have announced that they will close their stores at special times for cleaning, disinfection, and restocking. Others offer special shopping time slots reserved for elderly and other high-risk groups, minimizing their exposure to large groups of people who could be asymptomatic but carriers of COVID-19, nonetheless.
As for prescription medications? “Shortages of medications are more of a concern at this point than backlogs at pharmacies, due to everyone stocking up,” says Ramzi Yacoub, Pharm.D, chief pharmacy officer of SingleCare, a prescription savings service. “Many medications or ingredients are from China or other countries that may have manufacturing issues or delays due to coronavirus quarantines. Generally, there are manufacturing alternatives, where drug makers can work around any supply issues, but it’s too early to tell.” Yacoub recommends that you request early refills on all prescriptions—at least a week before they run out—and consider using mail-order prescription services or pharmacies that offer home delivery.