Written by Tim Newman on March 28, 2020
In this article, we ask some of Medical News Today’s experts what they want the public to know about the COVID-19 pandemic. The answers are insightful and direct.
As it stands, almost 420,000 people around the world have contracted SARS-CoV-2, and there have been more than 17,000 deaths.
The volume of publicly available information about SARS-CoV-2 is staggering. However, not all of this information is trustworthy, and it is during challenging times, such as these that we need expert guidance.
The pandemic, which began in China, has now touched large portions of the globe. As the world strives to adjust to this new normal, we asked some of our experts to provide insight. In particular, we asked them to tell us what they wish more people knew about the pandemic.
Many of our experts fear that people are not implementing social distancing. For instance, Dr. Matt Coward, a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, explains.
“I wish that patients knew that they can be asymptomatic and can still have it and spread it. I wish they knew that social distancing was more about slowing the spread in the community than it is about getting exposed and contracting it yourself.”
We do not know precisely how many people who have the virus do not display symptoms. However, research suggests that only 1–3% of people with the infection will have no symptoms. Additionally, 80% might have what experts class as a mild case of COVID-19. Although to be clear, a mild case will still involve a cough and fever.
Dr. Coward continues, “Many [people] who feel they are healthy or are in low-risk groups or both aren’t taking the social distancing recommendations as seriously. [This might be] because they [are] less concerned about contracting the virus, while the whole idea of social distancing is that by practicing social distancing, you are protecting those who are more vulnerable from [exposure].”
Social distancing is not just about protecting one’s own health. It is about protecting the health of those who are most at risk from COVID-19. History has shown us that social distancing can significantly slow the spread of disease.
As a doctor of pharmacy Alex Brewer explains, “I wish patients knew that it’s possible to be a carrier of the virus and transmit it to others, even if you’re asymptomatic. It’s so important that we all practice social distancing, even if you consider yourself young and healthy.”
A recent unpublished study demonstrates the vital role of social distancing for everyone, not just those with symptoms:
“By our most conservative estimate, at least 59% of the infected individuals were out and about, without being tested and potentially infecting others. This may explain why the virus spread so quickly in Hubei and is now circulating around the world.”
– Lead author Prof. Wu Tangchun
Some of our experts are concerned that some people might not be taking COVID-19 seriously enough.
Dr. Alana Biggers, an expert in internal medicine for adults and older adults at the University of Illinois Hospital, told MNT, “I wish my patients knew that coronavirus is not just a “bad flu.” It is a major respiratory infection that can cause detrimental health effects on people of all ages.”
Older adults are indeed more likely to die as a result of COVID-19, but anyone of any age can become infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published an analysis using case records from the United States; they provided the fatality rates broken down by age group:
- Over 85 years: 10%–27%
- 65–84 years: 3%–11%
- 55–64 years: 1%–3%
- 20–54 years: less than 1%
If a younger person does contract COVID-19, they are less likely to die, but if they do not follow guidelines about social distancing, they are more likely to pass the virus on to more vulnerable people.
In agreement with Dr. Coward and other medical experts, Dr. Biggers reiterates, “people need to practice social distancing and stay home. That is how we are going to get a handle on this virus.”
Face masks have become a common sight. Some of the experts we spoke with are worried that people misunderstand when it is appropriate to use them.
“For the average person in the community, […] masks are not a viable option,” explains Dr. E. Hanh Le, Senior Director of Medical Affairs at Healthline Media.
“In order to be effective, the person needs to throw them out frequently and not reuse them. Additionally, face masks give people a false sense of security as they forget that they can still become infected if they touch an infected surface and then touch their eyes, or if infected respiratory drops come into contact with their eyes.”
However, certain people should use face masks. As Dr. Le explains, someone with a cold or cough should wear a mask to “help protect others from your illness.”
Also, Dr. Le does “recommend that healthcare providers and caregivers, such as home aides, do wear them, as the healthcare providers are expected to be in close contact with those who are at high risk of contracting the infection or who already have the infection.”
Some experts worry that amid the sea of information about COVID-19, people are still not sure what to do if they become sick.
Sharon S. Stoll, an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, CT, says simply, “Please do not go to the ER or your healthcare provider’s office if you suspect that you have COVID-19.” Stoll explains why:
“This is just putting others at risk of getting the virus since we still do not have adequate testing or treatment at this time. Instead, one should stay home, limit contact with others, and self-quarantine for 14 days.”
Of course, if someone is having severe symptoms, they should act; Stoll says, “One should only go to the ER if it is becoming difficult to breathe or if you have other healthcare concerns that cannot be addressed via a phone call.
Please also have understanding and patience if it takes longer for your provider to get back to you with questions, as we are getting flooded with emails and calls. We are trying to give everyone answers to their questions and concerns while still seeing our current patients.”
Stoll provides what should, perhaps, become our joint public mantra: “Everyone needs to be respectful and understanding during this very difficult time.”
Although much of the scientific work exploring SARS-CoV-2 is deeply complex, the overall guidance to the public is relatively simple. Dr. Nancy Carteron, an associated clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco, outlines the most important things that we can do:
“Stay at home as much as possible to try to flatten the curve, spread out the time of newly infected cases, so that the healthcare system does not become overloaded.”
Also, we should minimize how often we touch our face, cough or sneeze into the crook of a bent arm, stay home if we are sick, and work from home if possible.
These are worrying times; we must follow the advice above to give the healthcare service and those who are most vulnerable the best possible chance.
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