Coronavirus Myths Dispelled

Physician, Epidemiologist Concerned About Misinformation Out There

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Patients wearing masks wait outside the busy Eastern Market MedStar PromptCare office March 20, 2020.

There are lot of rumors flying around in regard to COVID-19 (aka the coronavirus). Are dogs safe? Take-out food? Jogging past neighbors on the sidewalk? The Hill Rag decided to ask an expert to separate fact from fiction.

Hill resident Dr. Pedro Kremer is a lead scientist with Booz Allen Hamilton working in public health programs and policy evaluation for clients including the US Federal Government.  A family physician for 15 years, Kremer was with the Argentinian Ministry of Health during the 2009 SARS outbreak before coming to the US in 2015 to pursue a PhD in public health and epidemiology (the branch of medicine dealing with how and why diseases emerge, are transmitted and can be controlled).

Kremer has been providing neighbors with answers to their questions on social media sites such as NextDoor.

“One of the reasons I jumped into some of the social networks is I am very concerned about the amount of misinformation and conflicting information that is out there,” he said. “it’s doing a lot of damage. I believe those of us that are privileged enough to have access to good information have a responsibility to disseminate it, particularly in cases like this.”

The Facts

Here are a few of those basic facts: COVID-19 is transferred inside little drops sprayed out of the respiratory system as someone coughs, sneezes or talks (usually called ‘respiratory droplets’) which infect people by getting in their eyes, mouth or nose. This can happen because the droplets are inhaled by another person standing nearby, usually within 6 feet or so (hence the recommendation of six-feet distance as part of social distancing). It can also happen because people touch surfaces on which droplets have landed (including their own bodies and faces) or surfaces infected people have touched.

With these facts in mind, The Hill Rag asked Kremer to address some of the rumors about COVID-19 circulating on social media.

Can the coronavirus be transmitted via takeout and delivery packaging?

It’s not impossible, Kremer acknowledges, but the risk is very low – so low that he’s been ordering in himself. “In terms of the overwhelming damage that the outbreak is producing, not just in terms of health care but also socially and economically, I think that the risk is low enough for us to support small businesses by ordering take-out and delivery,” Kremer said. The virus affects the body through the respiratory system rather than the digestive system, he said, meaning the risk is the possibility of transfer via surface.

“For the most part, we can rely on the measures taken by restaurants,” Kremer said. If we don’t want do that, Kremer advises you immediately put delivered food in your own dishes, dispose of the containers and then wash your hands without touching your face. If you want to exercise hyper-caution, you can also sanitize containers with soap and water where possible and spray sanitizers where this is not possible.

So, can the coronavirus be transmitted via package delivery?

Recent reports indicate that some delivery personnel have recently tested positive for COVID-19, raising concerns that the virus could be transmitted through the mail. Even though these workers would be quarantined, any packages they handled with unwashed hands or unclean gloves could possibly have virus on them, Kremer said. The virus can be viable for between 24 hours and 5 days on paper, so deliveries that take less time could theoretically carry coronavirus. “For the population, the recommendation is to wash hands immediately after handling and disposing the envelops and boxes,” Kremer said, “the same as in relation to the other [food] deliveries.”

Can the virus be transferred via reusable bags (and what about smart phones)?

Some surfaces get touched a lot, Kremer acknowledges, and that includes some reusable shopping bags. It includes lots of other things, like door handles, remote controls, light switches and elevator buttons.

Kremer said that since washing some of these things can be complicated, it might be most efficient to sanitize the areas touched most frequently, and that goes for the bags, too. “I wouldn’t wash the entire bag. I really wouldn’t,” he said. “That reasoning would lead me to wash the entirety of everything in my house,” he said. Washing your hands prevents the virus – and other germs, too – from getting into your respiratory system.

Wash Your Phone

Everyday, people put their phones on all sorts of surfaces, in their pockets and against their faces. You touch it frequently, and so it is as dangerous as your hands and chosen surfaces are. You can sanitize your phone with an aerosol solution or gel sanitizer.

If you can wash an object with soap and water, do that. For other surfaces, a bottle that says ‘kills 99.99 percent of germs’ is not necessarily sufficient to kill the virus, Kremer said.

Check labels for active agents like ethanol (not less than 62 and not more than 95 percent) or sodium hypochlorite bleach (concentrated between .001 to .21 percent). But most critical, Kremer said, is that you WASH YOUR HANDS.

People and pets practicing social distancing, with each person position equidistant from another in Lincoln Park, March 20.

Can pets get or give people the coronavirus?

There is no evidence of a human getting coronavirus from an infected dog or pet, Kremer said. “Dogs and cats can get a strain of coronavirus, and have for ages, but it is a different variety than the one we are currently seeing in humans,” he said.

Where pets are dangerous is where they act as a surface for transmission: if someone with COVID-19 sneezes or coughs onto a pet, or touches their fur or skin with unclean hands, that virus can be conveyed to the next person who pets him, similar to any other surface (including your own skin and hair!), Kremer said. It is therefore reasonable for pet owners to decline requests to pet their dogs, and for people to refrain from petting animals outside their household. Kremer echoed the CDC in noting that it is wise to wash your hands after touching pets.

Can I use ibuprofen if I have symptoms similar to the coronavirus?

Short answer: most likely, yes. Kremer said the whole fear of ibuprofen is based on ‘speculation’, rather than a scientific study. Long answer: the ibuprofen-COVID-19 discussion started with a letter written to respected British medical journal The Lancet, in which the writer wondered if ibuprofen might mix poorly with a specific drug family used by a small population of elderly people suffering from high blood pressure or diabetes. That letter triggered warnings from organizations and governments before there was any actual scientific evidence either way. A few days later, organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) clarified that there was no evidence against the use of ibuprofen even in people with COVID-19 or similar symptoms.

Obviously, those who are taking prescription medication or have underlying conditions should always consult with a physician before taking medication, but for everyone else ibuprofen is probably as safe as for a headache, although acetaminophen or paracetamol are just as good. Don’t panic, Kremer said; “you are not putting yourself at risk if you use it.”

Social distancing in the line at Frager’s Hardware, March 21, 2020. Photo: A. Lightman

Can I get the virus from standing in line in front of an infected person, or passing them closely on the sidewalk?

Two things on this, Kremer said. First, if you’re in a close environment, such as a retail or service line, where people are not keeping social distance (i.e., standing 6 feet apart), you have the responsibility to let someone in authority know so they can take measures to allow everyone to keep social distance. “I truly believe that we all need to be agents of change here,” he said. “We all need to not be afraid to speak up, gently, tell everyone around us that this is not okay and that we need to organize ourselves.”

Being spaced six feet apart makes it impossible for people to touch one another, and makes it harder for the respiratory droplets from a cough or sneeze to reach you. However, Kremer said, being within 6 feet of another person for the time it takes to pass them on the sidewalk is not likely to be a danger unless they sneeze or cough on you, or for some reason should touch you.

The key recommendations remain the same:

  • Stay home if you are sick.Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze with your elbow or a tissue.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Sanitize frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • People without risk factors or pre-existing conditions should call the doctor if you have symptoms of COVID-19 BEFORE you go in to a doctor, unless you are experiencing difficulty breathing or blueness in the face or lips.

Finally, and critically:

  • Wash your hands frequently, before and after eating or using the bathroom and after sneezing, coughing or handling objects from outside your home.

Connect with Dr. Pedro Kremer via Linkedin, NextDoor or via Twitter @pedrokremer. Get the latest on COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/, and from the DC Department of Health at https://coronavirus.dc.gov/

Comments on articles should be directed to Leads@HillRag.com