Yes, it’s worse than the flu: breaking the coronavirus myths

The truth about the coronavirus, the protective value of face masks and how easy it is to get Covid-19.

Myth: “It is no more dangerous than the winter flu”

Many people who contract coronavirus do not experience anything worse than the symptoms of seasonal flu, but the overall profile of the disease, including its death rate, appears more severe. At the beginning of an outbreak, the apparent death rate can be an overestimate if many mild cases are missed. But this week, a WHO expert suggested that this has not been the case with Covid-19. Bruce Aylward, who led an international mission to China to learn about the virus and the country’s response, said the evidence does not suggest that we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg. If confirmed with further evidence, this could mean that current estimates of a death rate of about 1% are accurate. This would make Covid-19 is about 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year worldwide.

Myth: “It only kills the elderly, so younger people can relax”

Most people who are not elderly and do not have underlying health conditions will not get seriously ill with Covid-19. But the disease is still more likely to cause severe respiratory symptoms than seasonal flu and other groups are at riskHealthcare workers, for example, are more vulnerable because they are likely to have greater exposure to the virus.

The actions that young and healthy people take, including symptoms and quarantine instructions, will play an important role in protecting the most vulnerable in society and shaping the overall trajectory of the outbreak.

Myth: ‘Masks don’t work’

Wearing a face mask is certainly not an ironclad guarantee that you won’t get sick; Viruses can also be transmitted through the eyes and small viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks. However, masks are effective at capturing droplets, which is a major transmission route for the coronavirus, and some studies have estimated approximately five-fold protection versus no barrier alone (although others have found lower levels of effectiveness).

If you are likely to be in close contact with someone infected, a mask reduces the chance of the disease being transmitted. If you have symptoms of coronavirus or have been diagnosed, wearing a mask can also protect others. Therefore, masks are crucial for health and social care workers caring for patients and are also recommended for family members who need to care for someone who is ill; ideally, both the patient and the caregiver should have a mask.

However, the masks will likely make little difference if you’re just walking around town or taking a bus, so you don’t need to buy a large supply in bulk.

Myth: “You must be with an infected person for 10 minutes”

For the flu, some hospital guidelines define exposure as being within six feet of an infected person sneezing or coughing for 10 minutes or more. Nevertheless, it is possible to become infected with shorter interactions or even by picking up the virus from contaminated surfaces, although this is believed to be a less common transmission route.

Myth: “A vaccine could be ready in a few months”

Scientists rushed out of the gates as they began development of a vaccine for the new coronavirus, aided by the early release of the genetic sequence by Chinese researchers. The development of a viable vaccine continues apace, with several teams now testing candidates in animal experiments. However, the incremental trials required before a commercial vaccine can be implemented remains a lengthy undertaking, and an essential task to ensure that even rare side effects are detected. A commercially available vaccine within a year would be quick.

Myth: “If a pandemic is declared, there is nothing else we can do to stop the spread”

A pandemic is defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease, but the exact threshold for declaring one is quite vague. In practice, the actions that are taken would not change whether or not a pandemic is declared. Containment measures are not simply about eliminating the disease completely. Delaying the appearance of an outbreak or decreasing the peak is crucial to allow health systems to cope with a sudden influx of patients.

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