On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a grave warning: The outbreak of the coronavirus officially named COVID-19 is a serious public health threat that may cause significant disruption in the U.S.
The illness that began in China about three months ago is now popping up in many countries around the globe. Should you be worried? Probably — but possibly not as much as you think.
Following are five myths about COVID-19 — and the corresponding truths.
1. If you get the coronavirus, you are sure to die
Let’s get this out of the way: The coronavirus could kill you. Or, it could at least make you very sick.
But that’s also true of the flu. The sad fact is that such illnesses can have dramatically different health impacts on one person than they do on another.
For example, people who are elderly or who have compromised immune systems are in far greater danger when exposed to such illnesses. And sometimes, even healthy people can fall gravely ill from viruses.
But for a vast majority of people, contracting this coronavirus is unlikely to be much of an event. World Health Organization expert Bruce Aylward said Tuesday that among all the COVID-19 cases across China:
- 80% are mild
- 14% are severe
- 6% involve the person becoming critically ill
That doesn’t mean you should take the coronavirus lightly. But it also suggests you should not fear COVID-19 as the second coming of the Black Death.
2. The coronavirus is a far bigger threat than the flu
COVID-19 appears to have a higher death rate than influenza, meaning that you are more likely to die of the coronavirus than the flu — assuming you catch it. But for now, the flu is far more widespread than this coronavirus, meaning you are much more likely to catch the flu.
To date, there have been fewer than 100,000 known cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with fewer than 100 in the U.S. By contrast, there have been at least 29 million cases of influenza in the U.S. alone this flu season, according to CDC estimates.
During the last flu season in the U.S., the CDC estimates there were 35.5 million infections and 34,200 deaths from flu infections.
Yes, the coronavirus is scary. The death rate among people with known infections in China ranges from 0.7% to as high as 2% to 4%, depending on the region, the WHO’s Alyward said Tuesday.
But it would be foolish to focus exclusively on this new virus and overlook the very real — and potentially fatal — threat that the flu poses. Unfortunately, millions of people do just that: The CDC reports that less than half of American adults got a flu shot during the past flu season, for example.
3. Wearing a face mask is the best way to protect yourself from the coronavirus
The CDC says flatly that it does not recommend wearing a face mask to prevent contracting respiratory diseases like the coronavirus.
However, people who already have coronavirus symptoms should wear face masks to help prevent spreading the virus.
So, what should you do if you are healthy and want to stay that way? Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. According to CDC precautions:
“Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.”
4. You can take a pill or powder to keep the coronavirus at bay
Any time a new illness appears, you can be sure that scams and quackery will follow in its wake.
A Harvard Medical School report notes that people are pushing oregano oil, vitamin C and “nonmedical immune boosters” as keys to warding off the virus. There is no evidence any of these methods is effective.
According to a Harvard Health Publishing story:
“Facebook is trying to fact-check postings, label those that are clearly false, and reduce their ranking so they are less prominently displayed. Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok have also taken steps to limit or label misinformation. But it’s nearly impossible to catch them all, especially since some are in private social media groups and are harder to find.”
5. Given all these myths, there is no reason to worry about the coronavirus
Yes, fears about the coronavirus may be overstated — especially compared to how casually people treat the potential dangers associated with the flu.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry at all about COVID-19.
It’s true that we know more now about it now than we did a few months ago, and some of what we’ve learned has been at least marginally reassuring.
But there’s still a lot we don’t know. The illness may be more dangerous than it appears now, and we already know that it can have devastating impacts for some populations. One study of cases in China found that at least 49% of those people who became critically ill from COVID-19 died from it.
So, it doesn’t make sense to simply shrug off fears about COVID-19.
Earlier this month, Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, struck a balance that puts things in perspective. As he told the Berkeley News:
“Coronavirus is a very serious problem, and we don’t know how serious it will become. But right now, it’s not something to panic about in the U.S. And frankly, I think we have the tools to prevent it from ever rising to the level of something we should really worry about seriously in the U.S.”
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