Coronavirus Myths Debunked by A Physician
I’ve been a practicing physician for over 30 years, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anything quite like the spread of misinformation regarding a respiratory virus in my career. Coronavirus myths are being reported as facts, and often.
Reading and sharing accurate information
While most people are well aware of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation on social distancing, another important recommendation seems to be flying somewhat under the radar: Stopping the spread of COVID-19 rumors.
It is more important than ever to fact-check what we share with others during this pandemic to stop the spread of false information. And yes, even if you heard it, saw it, or read it on news media outlets. For example, I heard this false statement on a local radio station:”If you have cold symptoms, you probably have the Coronavirus.”
According to the CDC, the main symptoms of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the Coronavirus — are fever, dry cough1, and shortness of breath and not the sniffles, a runny nose, or sneezing. That’s a cold.
Here are two common questions being asked and the misleading answers (AKA Coronavirus myths) making the rounds.
What’s the mortality rate of coronavirus?
Misleading information: The mortality rate of coronavirus is estimated to be between 2% and 4%.
The statement has been reported many times by various news outlets:
- The latest coronavirus death rate is 3.4% — higher than earlier figures. Older patients face the highest risk — Business Insider
- Coronavirus global death rate at 3.4 percent, Olympics delay a possibility — Fox News
- WHO says coronavirus death rate is 3.4% globally, higher than previously thought — CNBC
To calculate the mortality rate of a disease, you divide the total number of cases by the total number of deaths. The 2% to 4% range from the statement was calculated using the number of sick people who tested positive for Coronavirus divided by the total number of deaths and was also specific to the Chinese in Wuhan. See image below.
As testing becomes more widely available, and both people that are experiencing symptoms and those who are asymptomatic are tested, the numbers will start to reflect a more accurate picture of the actual mortality rate.
Let’s look at the mortality rate of other places where testing was more readily available:
- 0.4% mortality rate reported by the Chinese CDC outside of Wuhan in China, where there was more widespread testing2.
- 0.65% mortality rate in South Korea reported by The New York Time3.
- 0.85% mortality rate reported by Slate on the Princess Cruise outside Japan4.
The cruise ship has been the only case study to-date where it could be confirmed that everyone who was exposed was also tested, given that it is a closed environment. It is likely our best look at an accurate mortality rate.
The numbers will continue to change as testing increases. Make sure to look for credible sources like the CDC and the WHO to stay up to date.
How long can the Coronavirus survive on surfaces?
The Coronavirus survives much longer on surfaces than the flu virus, which is up to 9 days on plastic.
First, for comparison, the flu virus survives on hard surfaces for about 9 hours and several hours in fluid droplets —aerosols— in the air5. Low temperatures increase the survival of the virus in droplets. Many respiratory viruses die off as the temperature goes up. This is why the flu season is in the winter.
Both articles cite an analysis review of 22 earlier studies of similar coronaviruses, published in The Journal of Hospital Infection in February of this year. The review concluded that the coronaviruses survived various lengths of time from hours to days6. However, taking a closer look at some of the studies paints a different picture.
- A 2005 study published in Medical Microbiology and Immunology, showed that a different coronavirus survived for 9 days on plastic. However, by 48 hours, the viral load was 10,000 times less7.
- A 2003 study by the Chinese CDC, showed a similar coronavirus surviving only for 2 to 3 days on plastic, which fits with the fact that the viral load is falling steeply after that time8.
According to the CDC, “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.” You can learn more here.
Unarguably, there is a risk. However, given the CDC’s recommendation that people wash their hands frequently and clean surfaces often, trying to click-bait you and add stress seems unnecessary. Ask yourself, does this new information add value to what you are already doing? I think you know the answer.
- Be a fact-checker. Seek information from credible sources such as the CDC and the WHO.
- Practice social distancing and observe strict quarantine protocols if you test positive.
- Wash your hands and clean frequently touched surfaces often.
1. The Centers for Disease Control. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)-Symptoms. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/symptoms.html Accessed 3/10/20
2. Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention CCDC Weekly. The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel
Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19) — China, 2020. Vol. 2. No. 8. http://weekly.chinacdc.cn/fileCCDCW/journal/article/ccdcw/2020/8/PDF/COVID-19.pdf
3. Kolate G. Coronavirus Is Very Different From the Spanish Flu of 1918. Here’s How. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/09/science/coronavirus-is-very-different-from-the-spanish-flu-of-1918-heres-how.html Accessed 3/10/20
4. Faust J. COVID-19 Isn’t As Deadly As We Think. Slate. https://slate.com/technology/2020/03/coronavirus-mortality-rate-lower-than-we-think.html Accessed 3/6/20
5. Greatorex JS, Digard P, Curran MD, Moynihan R, Wensley H, Wreghitt T, et al. (2011) Survival of Influenza A(H1N1) on Materials Found in Households: Implications for Infection Control. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27932. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027932
6. Kampf, G. et al. Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents. Journal of Hospital Infection, Volume 104, Issue 3, 246 – 251. https://www.journalofhospitalinfection.com/article/S0195-6701(20)30046-3/pdf
7. Rabenau, H.F., Cinatl, J., Morgenstern, B. et al. Stability and inactivation of SARS coronavirus. Med Microbiol Immunol 194, 1–6 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00430-004-0219-0
8. Duan SM, Zhao XS, Wen RF, Huang JJ, Pi GH, Zhang SX, Han J, Bi SL, Ruan L, Dong XP; SARS Research Team. Stability of SARS coronavirus in human specimens and environment and its sensitivity to heating and UV irradiation. Biomed Environ Sci. 2003 Sep;16(3):246-55. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14631830