A Pocket Guide to COVID-19: Myths, Misconceptions, and More

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Joanna Lee

As news of the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak floods various news and social media outlets, common myths and misconceptions easily slip through the cracks to deceive the uninformed.

Joanna Lee, Multimedia Editor

For many, it’s practically impossible to go even an hour without hearing word of the coronavirus. At a tap of a button, we are instantly bombarded with social media posts and news headlines concerning this widespread pandemic. Amassing over 6 million search results on Google, it can be difficult to differentiate between real news and sites bent on spreading misinformation. 

Senior Lauren Lee expresses her concern regarding the circulation of false information, stating, “fake news and misconceptions are causing both paranoia in some people to an unreasonable extent, or complete dismissal of the topic at hand.” 

“It’s unfortunate that many people aren’t taking the pandemic as seriously as they should,” Junior Nathaniel Thornton responds. “I personally know a few people that have actually tested positive for COVID-19 so that alone is a huge reality check for me.”

From rumors claiming that drinking garlic water can cure the coronavirus to conspiracy theories about the virus being a bioweapon engineered in a Chinese lab, fake stories can stir up unnecessary panic. With so much information being thrown around, how much of it is actually true? 

Lee shares her first-hand experience dealing with the issue. “I heard that some people were self-diagnosing themselves for coronavirus by holding their breath and seeing if they can last for more than 10 seconds without coughing. If they passed the test, they were supposedly healthy.” 

Upon hearing the news, Lee reveals, “I actually believed it until I was told that the myth came from an unreliable source and didn’t actually work.”

 

 1. First of all, what exactly is coronavirus? 

Coronavirus is actually an umbrella term used to refer to a family of related viruses that can cause a variety of diseases in both mammals and birds. The name coronavirus is derived from the latin word corona, meaning “crown”. This is due to the spiky, crown-like fringe on the surface of the virus. 

Only seven forms of coronavirus have been known to infect humans including SARS, MERS, and the COVID-19 virus. These strains affect the respiratory tract, causing illness that can range from the common cold to pneumonia and bronchitis. 

Nowadays, the coronavirus that many of us are actually referring to is called COVID-19, which is a new strain of coronavirus discovered in late 2019 that has not been previously detected in humans. Like previous strains of coronavirus, patients with COVID-19 suffer from respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days so it is possible for some to have the virus and not exhibit any noticeable symptoms at all. 

 

Joanna Lee
An infographic detailing the likely origin of the coronavirus. Many believe that the coronavirus and likely COVID-19 itself, originated from animals which then spread to humans through direct contact.

2. How did COVID-19 spread to humans in the first place? Was it from bats?

The first known case of COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Although health officials still cannot pinpoint the exact source of the virus, early hypotheses linked the origin of multiple COVID-19 cases to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale wet market in Wuhan. A “wet market” is a market that sells perishable food items such as meat, fish, and produce as opposed to a “dry market” which mainly sells durable goods such as electronics and clothing items. 

Researchers believe that COVID-19 is likely a “zoonotic disease”, meaning that it’s a disease that jumped from animals to humans. Unlike wet markets in other countries that typically feature common animals such as pigs or chicken, wet markets in China are known for their more exotic assortment of live animals such as civet cats, boars, and cobra snakes. Such conditions are often unsanitary as animal blood and feces mixed with water and slush are seldom cleaned off of the floor, creating a breeding ground for disease. 

Although many scientists are confident the virus originated from an animal, it is still unclear which animal specifically was the culprit.

 

Joanna Lee
Many are still unsure about the specific safety and sanitary measures being taken before the arrival of their mail packages.

3. How is the virus spread? Can you get the virus from a package in the mail?

The virus is believed to be mainly spread through close contact with an infected person (within 6 feet). When the infected person sneezes or coughs, they send respiratory droplets in the air, which can then land on other people or objects and surfaces around them. It is also possible to contract the coronavirus from touching an infected object or surface and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.

In a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, it was found that the virus could stay suspended in the air in droplets smaller than 5 micrometers, called aerosols, for up to three hours. However, researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) were unable to prove that the coronavirus has such a capability and therefore could not attest to the validity of those claims.

As for the viability, or capacity to infect, of COVID-19 on surfaces, the same study from the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the virus can survive for no more than 24 hours on cardboard and 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. 

As a result of mandatory social distancing and self-quarantine, many have resorted to ordering their essentials online rather than traveling to a grocery store, where they may be at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. Given the information above, it is to no surprise that many are worried about the safety of ordering items online.

The CDC has found that “because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.” As a result, the CDC does not recommend that people disinfect their packages. 

Similarly, the World Health Organization states on their website, “The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.” They had also made a statement earlier during the pandemic, claiming, “People receiving packages from China are not at risk of contracting the new coronavirus.”

FedEx, UPS, and USPS have all released separate statements regarding the coronavirus indicating that they are following guidelines as directed by the CDC and WHO and that they are sending home any handlers or drivers that exhibit flu-like symptoms.

The chances of transmitting COVID-19 through mail is actually very low considering the specific conditions that must be met in order for the virus to survive transit. Still, Tania Elliot, a clinical instructor of infectious diseases at NYU Langone, advises people to place their mail on a plastic plate instead of a countertop or table, to use a letter opener, and to wash hands thoroughly after touching mail as a precautionary measure.

 

Joanna Lee
Due to recent rumors, many mistakenly believe that COVID-19 cannot survive in extreme hot or cold temperatures and that the pandemic will likely end in the summer season.

4. Can hot or cold weather kill the coronavirus?

With the news of warmer Spring and Summer seasons just around the corner, a seemingly hopeful message has been circulating, claiming that the coronavirus is unable to survive warmer climates. Many theorize that the spread of COVID-19 may slow down as a result. However. the World Health Organization (WHO), states that the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted in ALL weather conditions, including areas with hot and humid weather. 

Similarly, another myth has recently arisen claiming that cold weather and snow may be able to ‘kill’ the virus. The WHO states that there should be no reason to believe that cold weather can kill the coronavirus or any disease for the matter as the normal human body temperature typically remains between 36.5°C to 37°C (97.7°F to 98.6F), regardless of the external temperature.

While heat and humidity have been known to affect the infectivity of certain viruses, Dr. Robert Oliverio of Roper St. Francis says that it is just too soon to tell if heat or seasonal changes have any impact on COVID-19. As of now, there is currently no evidence that proves certain temperatures and climate conditions have any effect on the viability of the virus. The WHO states that the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to wash your hands frequently.

 

Joanna Lee
Another common misconception is that wearing a surgical mask can supposedly protect one from oncoming germs and airborne particles in the air.

5. Can wearing a face mask protect you from COVID-19 and other viruses?

Upon the announcement of the first known cases of COVID-19, consumers wasted no time buying out all available reserves of face masks, hand sanitizers, and gloves in preparation for the rising pandemic. The issue was so widespread that images of citizens wearing face masks quickly became synonymous with the pandemic itself.

The most common type face masks observed during the outbreak were surgical masks and N95 respirator masks. 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), surgical masks are not designed or certified to prevent the inhalation of small airborne contaminants. The masks are not designed to seal tightly against the user’s face, which can allow potentially contaminated air to pass between the gaps between the surgical mask and face. 

Instead, the masks were originally intended for use by sick people to limit the spread of their infectious respiratory secretions upon others and by healthcare personnel to prevent accidental contamination of patients’ wounds by the workers’ saliva. Such masks are only designed to protect from a visible splash or large droplets of fluid. 

According to the WHO, you should only wear a surgical mask if you are coughing or sneezing or if you are taking care of an infected patient.

Unlike surgical masks, the N95 respirator mask is a specialized mask that can protect wearers from COVID-19. Although the mask is made of thicker material and has proved more effective than surgical masks, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has not recommended it for public use.

This is due to the fact that the general public is not educated on how to wear these masks properly and also because the masks are difficult to wear for long periods of time. Specialists and medical professionals are actually required to receive annual training before using the N95 masks.

While it may still be possible to buy these masks online, it is not advised. If too many people start unnecessarily stockpiling the respirators, it could soon cause a shortage and put the health of thousands of medical workers who actually need them at risk.

 

In a world where a near infinite amount of information and resources are available at our fingertips, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate the lies from the truth. Therefore it is crucial that we do our proper research and take extra steps to ensure that our sources are as reliable as they claim. 

“I stay informed by watching multiple news channels to get as much info as possible, that way I can make conclusions based on the evidence given and so I won’t have an extremely biased standpoint,” states Thornton.

Visiting a wide variety of news sources that cover multiple angles of this current pandemic may be the best strategy to take. It’s best to thoroughly research a claim or myth before jumping to any conclusions or you may put yours or other lives at risk.