Note: This post has not been updated since March and thus some of the information contained here may not reflect the current state of knowledge. Please refer to the World Health Organization or your local public health agencies for the most up-to-date information on COVID-19.
Coronavirus has caught everyone’s attention and emptied store shelves of hand sanitizer, masks, and toilet paper. As the disease gains more traction across the globe, people start to panic, and that sends logical reasoning straight out the window.
COVID-19 is a disease caused by a type of coronavirus, specifically severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Coronaviruses also infect animals, and a lot of people and a lot of animals being in close proximity, China is a prime area where viruses can mutate and jump from animals to humans.
COVID-19 typically involves fever, fatigue, and dry cough. Some people have no symptoms at all, while about 1 in 6 become very ill and develop breathing problems, progressing to pneumonia and even death. This is most likely to happen in the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
The virus spreads by droplet transmission. From the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) site, it sounds like they haven’t entirely ruled out airborne transmission, but droplet is the main method of transmission. Droplet transmission means that the virus is carried in small droplets of respiratory secretions, like what’s produced by coughing or sneezing.
Airborne transmission doesn’t require any droplets, so it can spread more easily, as is the case with measles and tuberculosis. Coronavirus does not appear to spread that way; you get it by someone coughing on you, or more likely by touching a surface that is contaminated.
Ways to protect yourself
- Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or use hand sanitizer, especially when in public areas where there are surfaces that people are commonly touching. Hand sanitizer is more convenient when out and about, but regular soap and water will do just fine. Surfaces like doorknobs and railings that a lot of people are touching are most likely to be germy.
- Try to avoid touching your face – you don’t want to touch a contaminated surface and then rub your nose, mouth, or eyes, giving the virus an open door into your body
- Stay several feet away from anyone who’s coughing
- Don’t shake hands with people
Ways to protect others
- If you are coughing, do it into your elbow to help contain droplet spread
- Consider self-isolating is you have symptoms of respiratory illness
What doesn’t help
- The influenza vaccine – The pumpkin in chief wondered if the flu vaccine would help. But it doesn’t work that way. Vaccines are very specific, and don’t do anything other than what they’re made for.
- The pneumonia vaccine – Ditto. A vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t coming anytime soon.
- Buying a year’s supply of toilet paper
The low-down on masks
There is a more recent post on the use of non-medical masks here.
There are two different types of masks, neither of which the average person needs to be wearing.
N95 respirators form a seal around the mouth and nose to protect the wearer from airborne (not just droplet-borne) particles. The type of respirator needs to be fit-tested to the individual to ensure a proper seal on their face.
The only people that should be wearing these are health professionals treating people with COVID-19, as per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is because they’ll be getting very up close and personal with the person’s respiratory secretions.
Then you’ve got your basic surgical mask. Surgical masks don’t keep small particles out. They’re actually most useful if you’re the one who’s sick, because if you sneeze or cough you’re not spraying it all over everyone else and infecting them.
If you’re trying to protect yourself from others, a mask would only be slightly helpful if you’re within a couple feet of someone with the virus who’s coughing, spraying respiratory droplets into the few feet of space directly around them.
For the most part, though, you’re probably not going to be getting that up close and personal with someone who’s ill, and you’re most likely to come in contact with the virus by touching a surface and then touching your face. A surgical mask is going to do nada for that.
Fake news and fear-mongering
Unfortunately, situations like this mean party time for the ignorant. The World Health Organization recently released a mortality rate of 3.4% for COVID-19. The pumpkin in chief expressed his view that this was a “false number.” Based on his own “hunch,” the mortality rate is “way under 1%.” And sure, the W.H.O. number may be a bit off, but the president of the United States pulling things out of his ass his not helping anything.
So, don’t worry about the hand sanitizer or surgical masks. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. And if the only toilet paper left at the store is that enviro-friendly recycled crap, I’m not going to be impressed.
There’s more on pubic health in the Science Corner.
I’ve put together a COVID-19 coping toolkit with some resources to help with managing the stress of the current pandemic.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Frequently asked questions about personal protective equipment
- Factcheck.org: Trump and the coronavirus death rate
- W.H.O.: Naming the coronavirus
- W.H.O.: Q&A on coronavirus