Milken expert weighs in on prevention, myths surrounding COVID-19

Misinformation about COVID-19 has become increasingly pervasive, but a public health professor is sharing professional advice about how to protect yourself and others against the virus.

More than 10,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States, with the highest concentrations in New York, California and Washington state, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. GW moved classes online for the remainder of the semester earlier this week to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus and in D.C., where there are 39 confirmed cases, according to D.C. Department of Health data.

Christopher Mores, a global health professor and expert in virology, said the virus is “fantastically” transmissive, but most young people who contract the virus do not experience serious symptoms. He said young, healthy individuals need to take measures to protect vulnerable populations – including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions – and slow the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has an R0 – or measurement of a disease’s contagiousness – of 2.2, meaning that one individual with the virus infects an average of 2.2 others, according to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information last month.

“Some of that is protecting ourselves and keeping ourselves healthy, and another part of it is we keep doing the job we are here for while others stay home because they can’t because they’re at too great a risk,” Mores said.

COVID-19 transmission
Mores said experts currently believe the virus spreads via respiratory droplets infected individuals expel while talking, sneezing or coughing. He said respiratory droplets can usually travel one to two meters – or approximately three to six feet – but the speed at which COVID-19 is spreading could mean the virus can travel three to four meters.

But he said “very little” data exists about how the virus is transmitted because COVID-19 has never infected humans. He said experts may not “authoritatively” understand how the virus spreads until after the epidemic is over.

“These are all rules of thumb at this point,” Mores said.

Mores said that some news media outlets use analogies to the flu to portray individuals’ risk levels, how the disease is transmitted and what behavior changes the general public needs to make to stop spreading the virus. But he said comparisons between the flu and COVID-19 can cause some individuals to downplay the severity of the disease, because many people do not perceive influenza as a serious illness.

“There’s been lots of coverage and sometimes it’s a good message, but it still gets misinterpreted by people,” he said.

Common misinformation
Mores said most masks people wear are not high-filtering and provide limited levels of protection against disease.

He said N95 masks – which health care professionals wear to block splashes and large particle droplets – must fit properly to be effective and are difficult to breathe through for extended periods of time. Mores said most people who wear N95s tend to fidget with the masks and touch their faces, which he said can increase an individual’s chance of COVID-19 infection.

Only sick people and healthy individuals caring for people with suspected COVID-19 cases need to wear masks, according to the World Health Organization website. Masks are only effective if put on and disposed of properly and combined with frequent hand washing, according to the WHO.

“They’ll be very uncomfortable for extended periods and so the likelihood that someone would continue to wear an N95 appropriately as they went through their day is very unlikely because of comfort issues,” Mores said.

He said public health experts are currently unaware how effectively sanitizers protect against the virus because they are still determining whether touching COVID-19-contaminated surfaces poses a substantial disease risk.

The CDC recommends people frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, but hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol will suffice if soap and water are not readily available.

“If you have a great behavior set of not touching your face and of washing your hands, then that’s really going to protect you from any of that contaminative infectious contact,” he said.

Mores added that the flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19, but decreasing flu cases can allow health care providers to allocate more resources to treating individuals with COVID-19.

“That’s going to reduce sort of burden on healthcare by at least removing some of the flus that we otherwise are dealing with there,” he said.

Social distancing
Mores said the most “important” action people can take to protect themselves and others against the virus is to practice “social distancing,” or limiting social interaction to stop or slow the spread of disease. He said individuals should avoid close contact with other people if possible.

Mores said people more than 60 years old are more likely to die from the disease than people less than 30, but younger populations can still contract the virus without presenting symptoms. He said that asymptomatic individuals can unknowingly spread COVID-19, therefore a large portion of the population will likely become exposed to the virus, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

“It’s important to think about what those distances are looking like when you’re at the gym or at the store, and are there ways you can modify your schedule to maybe go at less busy times or just drop out of certain activities for now to create that distance?” he said.

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