Coronavirus: Fighting the ‘contagion of misinformation’

Wuhan new coronavirus. Credit: Public Domain. 

The coronavirus is spreading, and now there’s a travel ban on people going from China to the U.S. (unless they’re an American citizen or an immediate family member of a citizen). Americans returning from Wuhan Province will be quarantined for two weeks, even if they’re not sick.

The U.S. has roughly one dozen confirmed cases, and about half are in California.

Dr. Syra Madad, a special pathogens expert who works for New York City, tells Press Play, “We are currently battling two types of outbreaks. One: the actual coronavirus outbreak happening at the global scale. And the next is this contagion of misinformation. A lot of folks are coming out of the woodworks stating that they know what the coronavirus is, giving … advice to folks that is not based on science. Folks are thinking this is a very severe disease. We don't have the reliable data yet.”

Madad says it’s uncertain how big this outbreak may get, but the risk to the general American public is low, and there hasn’t been actual transmission in the community.

You’re more likely to get the flu

“If you're in the northern hemisphere, it is still peak flu time. And if you look at seasonal flu, the general population, less than half actually get vaccinated with the seasonal flu. And yet … over 10,000 deaths have been reported from seasonal flu just in the United States. … Over 18 to 20 million Americans have already become sick with seasonal flu. So it's much more likely you would get seasonal flu than the novel coronavirus,” Madad says. 

Ineffective: wearing masks if you’re not sick

“If you are infected with an infectious disease (for example, if you have seasonal flu), you put the mask on to prevent the spread of the disease to others, not the other way around. If you're wearing a mask and you're a healthy individual, folks think that they have a sense of protection against, for example, the coronavirus. That is not the case,” says Madad. 

She explains that coronaviruses are microns in size -- invisible to the naked eye -- so you’ll need a respiratory filtering piece in the mask to filter out airborne particles. A surgical or normal mask won’t do the trick. 

“Folks get this false sense of security that if I wear a mask, I'm okay. And then they don't follow the other basic infection control measures that do work, like washing your hands, staying away from those that are sick;  thinking they can go out in public and interact with sick folks, for example, and just wear a mask. And that is not the case,” she says. 

How does coronavirus get transmitted?

Coughing and sneezing. 

Close contact with somebody sick.

Fomites (objects that can carry infections). Madad gives an example: “You have droplets that fall on the floor, the doorknob; and then someone comes and then they touch it. Shortly after that, they touch their mucous membrane.”

How long does the virus hang around if someone does touch an infected doorknob or menu? There’s no reliable data yet, says Madad. 

Quarantining: good idea? 

“From basic infection control standpoint, any way we can limit the folks coming together in certain settings helps to prevent the spread of the infectious disease here,” Madad says. 

She adds that someone might find a way to escape quarantine and spread the disease, which would make it tougher for public health officials to track where this person is going. 

Other factors come into play too, but only time will tell whether quarantining will be beneficial, she concludes. 

Closing the border: good idea?  

Again, Madad says time will tell. “We've seen historically when things like this have happened, these types of measures, they have not proven to be successful. However each outbreak is very different and the makeup of each outbreak is different, so we will see.”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin