When the 1918 flu rocked the world over 100 years ago, health officials didn’t have to worry about the wild fire spread of misinformation on the internet. But now, as a 21st century global pandemic unfolds in the middle of the digital age – a new issue has emerged.
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High internet and social media use has caused a pandemic of misinformation about the coronavirus, which has healthcare providers concerned. In fact, one study found that online misinformation about COVID-19 continues to cause serious risk to public health.
Here, family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD, debunks some of the internet’s most shared myths about coronavirus.
Myth 1: Coronavirus doesn’t carry or spread in the air, so face masks won’t protect you.
COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through the air. It spreads through respiratory particles when an infected person talks, sneezes, coughs, laughs, sings, eats or breathes. (Often times, you don’t even see these droplets come out.) The respiratory particles can then be inhaled by a healthy person who is close by and they can become infected. It gets tricky when people have the virus, but don’t know it yet, and then spread it to unsuspecting people all around them. This can cause the virus to spread very quickly, especially if people aren’t adhering to safety protocols like wearing a mask or social distancing. Wearing a face mask provides protection to those around you from your respiratory droplets, and it also protects you from other people’s respiratory droplets.
Myth 2: Unless your mask is N95, it doesn’t work or protect anyone.
Sure, N95 masks are the best type of mask because they filter 95% of particles, but the reality is, there is still a shortage of these face masks, which must be reserved for healthcare and frontline workers. That being said, surgical masks are also around 95% effective and cloth masks are between 50 to 80% effective. But in order for a face mask to protect you and others around you, it needs to be worn correctly. It needs to fit snug around your face with no gaps, have multiple layers and it needs to cover both your mouth AND nose. Then, once your mask is on, don’t touch it.
Myth 3: I don’t need to wear a face mask outside because you can’t catch the virus when you’re outdoors.
Being outside makes the likelihood of catching COVID-19 lower, but not zero. Respiratory particles can still linger in the air outside and they can disburse and spread quickly in windy conditions. There have been plenty of examples of outdoor gatherings becoming superspreader events.
Myth 4: Kids shouldn’t have to wear masks since they’re not likely to get sick.
Thankfully, children fare pretty well with COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t getting sick or that they are immune to it. In fact, there have been a small number of children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which is a dangerous disease linked to coronavirus. Kids are also thought to play a role in community spread of COVID-19, too. That’s because often time’s kids don’t cover their coughs or sneezes and don’t wash their hands very well. And since many children have mild or no symptoms at all, it’s crucial they wear a face mask to help reduce the spread.
Myth 5: I don’t need to listen to or follow coronavirus guidelines because everything keeps changing and no one knows what they’re talking about.
It’s called the “novel” coronavirus for a reason. Novel means new or unusual. Doctors, nurses and scientists didn’t learn about COVID-19 in medical school or during their training. The reality is, information is coming at a rapid pace – and we should think of that as a good thing. We certainly know more about the virus now than we did back in February or March, which has only helped us learn more about how we can prevent it, treat it and eventually find a vaccine for it.
Think about how technology changes. Very few of us are still walking around with pagers or flip phones. As we gained access to information and technology, we adapted our views. Predicting the weather is another great example of public safety. If there’s a hurricane or tornado in your area, you prepare or even evacuate.
Myth 6: There will always be a new mutation or strain of the virus – so practicing all of these guidelines and protocols is useless.
When it comes to viruses, mutation is a natural and common occurrence. Coronavirus and the flu virus are both RNA viruses, which are prone to changes and mutations. COVID-19 is no exception and it’s true the virus has been changing over the past several months, ever so slowly. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have ways to slow or prevent the spread of it. This concept is why we get a flu shot every year – because there are always different strains of influenza. A flu shot typically protects you from three or four influenza viruses expected to be in circulation that season. A mutation or different strain of COVID-19 isn’t a reason to throw all caution to the wind. In fact, it’s more of a reason to practice guidelines and protect our most vulnerable populations until a vaccine is available and we have better immunity.
Myth 7: There’s a 99% survival rate for COVID-19. It’s not a big deal if you get it.
The truth is, this virus can be deadly and can cause serious long-term effects – many of which we don’t know very much about yet. While the mortality rate for healthy individuals and younger age groups is low, there’s still a chance of becoming seriously ill with the virus, even if you’re an otherwise healthy person. With the flu, symptoms typically stick around for four or five days — maybe even up to seven days. But COVID-19 may last 10 days or longer and can cause serious long term complications, including: blood clots, neurological issues and damage to the heart, lungs and kidneys. In general, the mortality rate changes by age and depends on other medical issues.
Myth 8: The only way you’ll get COVID-19 is if you touch something that was infected (like a doorknob) and then touch your face.
It’s true that someone can touch a contaminated surface or object and transfer the virus to themselves via their mouth, nose or eyes. However, becoming infected from touching a surface is not considered to be the primary way the virus spreads. Instead, the virus mainly spreads through the air in respiratory droplets that are exhaled from an infected person’s mouth and nose. A healthy person nearby can then unknowingly inhale these droplets and become infected. So, it’s crucial that you wash your hands, don’t touch your face and wear a face mask to protect yourself and those around you.
Myth 9: Masks are still effective if they cover your mouth, so keeping your nose out is OK.
Your mouth and nose are connected. So when you sneeze, cough or even breathe – you use both. That’s why your mask needs to cover your mouth AND your nose. Lowering your mask down under your nose exposes you to potentially infectious particles in the air around you, while also exposing others to the respiratory droplets you’re exhaling. Wearing a face mask can take some getting used to, but wearing one correctly is the whole point of why they work.
Myth 10: Soaking your mask in mouthwash or alcohol is an effective way to clean it.
Mouthwash doesn’t have enough alcohol to sanitize your masks and soaking your mask in alcohol is not recommended. Instead, read the cleaning instructions for your mask. Most cloth face masks are durable and can hold up in the washing machine. If you have a more delicate mask or if the instructions say to wash it by hand, use laundry detergent and hot or warm water. Scrub the mask for 30 to 60 seconds, rinse it and let it air dry. Be careful not to overuse detergent so there’s no residue left on the mask, which can irritate your skin. If you wear a disposable surgical mask, throw it away after every use.
Myth 11: Only sick people need to wear face masks, not healthy people.
The trouble with this thinking is that many times, people are unknowingly spreading the virus because they have mild or no symptoms at all. This gets dangerous (and unfair) when these otherwise “healthy people” don’t wear a face mask or practice social distancing and spread it to others who are high-risk. Many coronavirus patients also suffer from long-term repercussions, despite having prior good health. The virus can lead to damage of the heart, brain, lungs and kidneys.
Myth 12: It’s better to just get COVID-19 and be done with it.
COVID-19 is not your typical cold or flu. It’s more contagious in certain populations and has increased rates of severe disease and complications, which sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill sickness you might get every year. This virus can also cause permanent damage to your brain, heart, lungs and kidneys. Right now, we don’t know enough about the reinfection rate to assume that getting it once will protect you from getting it again in the future.
Myth 13: COVID-19 tests are unreliable and can’t be trusted.
Experts agree that COVID-19 tests are extremely sensitive and highly accurate. False positives and false negatives can happen in any medical test, but they are uncommon. Rates can also vary slightly with the type of test done, but in general, most tests are upwards of 90% accurate. Inaccurate testing usually boils down to timing and the sample. Someone may have a very low viral load during the first couple days of illness or during the end part of the infection, which a test wouldn’t be able to pick up. If a poor sample is collected, it can also cause an inaccurate result.