Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Dispelling Common Myths About COVID-19

Emily Dewar, MD
Emily Dewar, MD
Pediatric Resident at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School
Member, Texas Medical Association

Valerie Smith, MD
Tyler Pediatrician
Member, Texas Medical Association COVID-19 Task Force and TMA Council on Science and Public Health

Valerie Smith, MD
These days, it seems like everywhere you look you see something new about COVID-19. Worse, much of this information is conflicting and often confusing. When you are constantly surrounded with new statistics, it can be difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction. As a pediatrician and pediatric resident, we hear from many concerned parents that because of the constant information overload, they are not sure what to believe. We’re here to set the record straight on seven COVID-19/coronavirus myths. Below are the ones we hear most often, along with what makes them untrue.

1. Myth: COVID-19 causes the same symptoms in everyone.

Fact [or Reality]: The list of possible symptoms of COVID-19 is very long, and includes fever, chills, cough, congestion, runny nose, sore throat, shortness of breath, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or even loss of taste or smell. With so many different symptoms, this virus might look slightly different in every person who has it. Additionally, some people may be asymptomatic carriers – this means that someone can have and spread COVID-19 without even knowing, because they do not feel sick. There is no way to tell just by looking at someone whether they have COVID-19.

2. Myth: “Only old people or people who are already sick end up in the ICU.”

Fact [or Reality]: It is true that older people and those with pre-existing health conditions are at the greatest risk for having a severe case of COVID-19. (If you think you may fall into this category but are not sure, please reach out to your doctor.) However, even people who are otherwise healthy have become severely ill from the virus. There are case reports of previously healthy adults and even children who have died from COVID-19, so everyone should practice careful social distancing and frequent hand washing.

3. Myth: “Face masks do not work.”

Fact [or Reality]: One of the most important things you can do to protect those around you is to wear a mask. Masks work to prevent COVID-19 by containing the respiratory particles that we exhale, which can spread the virus. It is important that all people who are physically capable wear a mask or face covering in public because it is possible to infect other people with COVID-19 before you show symptoms. (And as we mentioned above, you might be a COVID-19 carrier and not even know it.) Because masks are meant to protect those around you, masks with one-way valves or vents should be avoided, as they can allow infectious respiratory particles to escape. “Universal masking,” or having everyone wear a mask, has been shown to decrease the spread of the virus both in hospitals and in the community

Admittedly, early guidance around masks was confusing, as people were advised not to purchase surgical masks, respirators, and N95 masks due to worldwide hospital shortages. (Of note, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends that N95 masks and respirators continue to be prioritized for health care workers and other first responders.) 

4. Myth: “COVID-19 is scary. I should stay indoors all the time.”

Fact [or Reality]: While it is very smart to be cautious about going out, you can (and should) spend time outside during this pandemic. Because of better air circulation and UV light outside, you are at no greater risk outdoors than you are indoors, as long as you continue to practice social distancing and frequent hand hygiene. Spending time outdoors is important for maintaining physical activity, and has been shown to improve mental health in children, teens, and adults

5. Myth: “This pandemic would be over soon if we just let everyone catch the virus.”

Fact [or Reality]: When enough people are immunized against a virus or have been sick and recovered from it, eventually the spread slows. This is often called herd immunity, or community immunity. Much is still unknown about COVID-19, however, including whether natural immunity to COVID-19 (immunity a person has after contracting and recovering from the virus) will last or  decrease over time. Because we are still learning about this virus, it is difficult to determine the exact percentage of people who would need to have recovered from the virus to achieve herd immunity. More importantly, for the strategy in this myth to work, millions more people could become very sick and die. We also must keep in mind that if too many people were to contract COVID-19 all at once, our health care system would not have the resources necessary to care for every patient requiring hospitalization. This is why masking, physical distancing, handwashing, and ultimately developing a COVID-19 vaccine is so important!

6. Myth: “Hydroxychloroquine prevents COVID-19.”

Fact [or Reality]: Large, randomized trials have shown that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment or preventative for COVID-19. Early studies – which suggested possible benefits of this drug against the virus – studied only a very small number of patients, had poor study techniques, and were unable to follow up with every participant over time. These issues make the results of these initial studies highly unreliable. The National Institutes of Health has discontinued its clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine for the treatment of COVID-19 after no benefit was shown. Additionally, the FDA has revoked the emergency use authorization of this medication for the treatment of COVID-19 due to the risk of harming the heart, without any proven ability to fight the virus.

7. Myth: “Hospitals and doctors’ offices aren’t safe. I should wait to get my kids vaccinated (and postpone other well-child medical visits).”

Fact [or Reality]: Hospitals and medical offices are taking extensive measures to ensure the safety of their patients, including universal masking, daily employee screening, separating incoming patients who are well from those who are sick, limiting visitors, cleaning frequently, and wearing appropriate protective equipment. Additionally, data at Boston’s Massachusetts General Brigham, have shown that there have been very few workplace transmissions of the virus within their health care system. More risky is the increase in delayed or cancelled preventive health care visits during this pandemic due to people’s fear of going to the doctor. For example, data from the CDC have shown sharp rates of decline in childhood vaccinations compared to last year. Doctors are concerned this could lead to outbreaks of measles or other vaccine-preventable diseases. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to continue to maintain a normal vaccination schedule for their children, as it has never been more important to keep kids healthy.

This era may have a lot of unknowns, and one thing is certain – following all this data is challenging. This pandemic is not over yet, and there will be more questions to come. In a scary and uncertain time, remember to turn to the experts to find your information. CDC, the Texas Medical Association, and your local public health department are excellent resources. Additionally, the most important and productive conversations about your health will happen between you and your physician. 

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