A Q&A about COVID-19

by Sahar Chmais

Science is an imperfect process in which new information is constantly incorporated, but this imperfect process has provided us with many answers about the novel coronavirus. With an unmeasurable amount of research, number of articles and word-of-mouth, it is easy to become misinformed and overwhelmed with what information is still applicable, and which information is null.

For that reason, Dr. Mary Theoktisto, an infectious disease doctor at Baylor Scott & White, has answered many of the common questions revolving around COVID-19 and safety, starting with why so many misconceptions exist.

Why do so many misconceptions around COVID-19 exist?

Theoktisto: “I think the big thing is,” explained Theoktisto, “it’s a new novel virus, so there’s a lot of things that are unknown, and there’s a lot of information on the internet as well.” To find reliable information, Theoktisto said it is important that people look at credible sources and rely on the World Health Organization, The Centers for Disease Control and local public health officials.

A few common misconceptions exist on what kills the virus and how people can keep control of it in their environments. Theoktisto broke down some of the information on which practices are healthy, and which ones are not.

Does heat and ultraviolet light kill the coronavirus?

Theoktisto: Exposure to UV light has shown that it can kill viruses on the surface, but doctors do not recommend people exposing themselves to high temperatures or to the sun as a precautionary method.

Is wearing gloves effective in preventing the spread of the virus?

Theoktisto: In general, it is not recommended to wear gloves in public, like when running errands. The coronavirus can live up to 72 hours on plastic surfaces, which means they can potentiate the spread because of the length of the virus’ survival. Hand hygiene is still the best coronavirus prevention method.

The glove rule can seem confusing because sometimes gloves are recommended. If someone is caring for elderly or sick people, it is recommended they use gloves while cleaning and caring for them. In a healthcare setting, such as a hospital, gloves are used once with a patient, disposed of, then the hands are cleaned. Whereas if a person is at a grocery store, they are pushing a grocery cart, then pulling something off the shelf, maybe touching their wallet, credit cards, cell phone, and never changing or cleaning the gloves. Overall, gloves do not seem as effective as hand washing.

Should we wipe down groceries when we go shopping?

Theoktisto: At the beginning of the pandemic, grocery wiping was hyped up. So far, there has not been documented transmission of the virus on food or food packaging and it is thought that getting the virus from food or its packaging is quite unlikely. Instead of vigorously scrubbing down packaging with disinfectants and wasting 30 minutes on cleaning all the groceries, there are other hygienic protocols to follow that are much simpler. It is recommended to unpack perishable items within two hours of packaging, only disinfect hard surfaces, and wash your hands or sanitize after unpacking groceries. Disinfectants are designed for hard surfaces, so they probably are not as effective on food packaging.

Debunking some myths on hygienic protocols is not enough, though. Scientists are coming closer to understanding how the virus spreads. Research is still coming about, but so far, answers have become a little clearer.

Is COVID-19 airborne?

Theoktisto: Before answering this question, it is best to understand the difference between droplets and airborne. Droplets are larger-sized particles which are excreted when people cough, sneeze or talk loudly. Airborne viruses and bacteria are suspended in the air for longer periods than droplets and can travel much further.

There is evolving information, but it looks like COVID-19 is spread by droplets, but there are cases of aerosolization. Procedures where it is aerosolized include intubation or mechanical ventilation. But outside of the hospital, there is data suggesting that outbreaks can occur in closed ventilation settings such as restaurants, night clubs and even places of worship where people are talking loudly and singing. There are more investigations that have to be done to answer the question as to whether airborne transmission happens with COVID-19.

What are super spreaders?

Theoktisto: It is basically people that are replicating high viral loads in their nasopharyngeal passages (their nose and back of their throat). They are asymptomatic, but can spread the virus and spread it to a lot of people. Part of that is because they don’t feel sick, so they may have more exposure to people. Super spreaders are not very common.

Does having a mild or severe case of COVID-19 affect the intensity at which the virus is spread?

Theoktisto: It is unknown who the hosts are that will be super spreaders. For the most part, most of the asymptomatic people will have low levels of transmission, but there is going to be a select few that can spread it to a lot of people.

Does the amount of virus taken into the body affect the severity of illness in a person?

Theoktisto: We do not know what the inoculum is; the viral load to infect somebody is still unknown. A person will not get severely ill if they get more of the virus, but are more likely to contract the virus if they have a higher inoculum. It is unknown if the severity of illness is correlated to how much virus a person is exposed to initially.

Is it difficult to contract COVID-19 a second time?

Theoktisto: It does look like according to most of the data that is out there, we may, may is the key word, have immunity up to 90 days, maybe longer. There have been cases reported of reinfection and some of it looks like reinfection from a slightly gnomically different virus — the same COVID-19 but its genome has changed just a little bit.

What are some other big misconceptions you keep hearing?

Theoktisto: It has been going around that a vaccine is ready. While there are many promising vaccines that are on the horizon being developed, clinical trials are still in progress to assess their efficacy.

Another one is that masks can cause carbon dioxide poisoning and lack of oxygen. Masks can be uncomfortable, but prolonged use of surgical masks, when worn properly, does not cause carbon dioxide intoxication or oxygen deficiency.

Antibiotics cannot treat or prevent COVID-19, antibiotics are designed for bacterial infections and not viral infections.

COVID-19 is not similar to the flu in terms of mortality.

Theoktisto: The best way of preventing transmission is using masks and hand hygiene. That is going to be the most effective way of preventing transmission and decreasing risk of getting ill. As far as hand sanitizer goes, over 60% alcohol is the most effective and washing your hands for 20 seconds or longer is also effective. Staying at least 6 feet from others, or the concept of social distancing, helps prevent spread which limits transmission.

COVID-19 can make anyone sick, regardless of age or underlying medical conditions. There are some people, those who are older, and those that have underlying medical conditions, who are at higher risk for serious complications.

We know there are people that are super spreaders; those are people that can, despite being in less crowded situations, spread to more people because they are more infectious. These people can be asymptomatic.

Theoktisto answered many of the pressing questions revolving around COVID-19, but because there are so many existing questions, the /News-Dispatch would like to hear input from the audience about what questions they have about the virus.

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