With each passing week, or even day, we’re learning more and more about COVID-19. Research is fast-tracked, written up and available to the public at speeds we’ve never seen before in science. The information coming at us can make one’s head spin. To help, I’ve compiled the latest knowledge around four areas.
1. COVID-19 Jargon: Cases, Deaths and Recovered
Public health officials commonly refer to three statistics when referring to COVD-19: cases, deaths and recovered. Of the three, deaths are the most easily defined. Cases is the term used for people who have tested have the virus. And recovered, refers to those people who have had symptoms but no longer have them. However, how valuable these number are depends on a a few things.
In many countries, testing is targeted to specific segments of the population such as healthcare workers, long-term care residents, people with severe symptoms, travellers and potential outbreak clusters. Commonly, anyone asymptomatic or with mild symptoms is not tested. As a result, the number of reported cases is likely much lower than true cases in the population.
To date, only Iceland, and a small community in Italy have done widespread testing. In Iceland, nearly 5% of their 360 000 people have been tested so far. Of which, 1% were positive and about 50% of those were asymptomatic. Similar findings were reported in an Italian town of 3300 people where 3% had the virus. Of those, more than half had no symptoms.
This is good as it means most people won’t get sick, but it also indicates more people are carriers than we currently know. These people can transmit the virus to those who are more vulnerable (>65 or with an underlying health issue). It also means that the number of people recovered may be underestimated since those who have no, or mild, symptoms are not captured. And while widespread testing would help a lot, there’s a worldwide shortage of supplies, so testing remains targeted. Therefore, physical distancing and self-isolation remain our best defence.
2. Protect Yourself and Your Family
Knowing how the virus is transmitted is important to guiding the public in protecting themselves. This comes down to knowing where the virus can be detected outside of a human body. In an intensive care unit, the virus was present in the air and on surfaces such as the floor, computer mouse and trash can. This is similar to a pre-published study of 13 patients in hospital isolation.
But detecting the virus in a room with an infected individual is not what many of us will encounter. Results from a small lab-based study found the virus can live airborne for up to four hours and up to three days on stainless steel and plastic. It’s important to recognize, though, the amount of detectable virus decreases over time.
What these studies don’t tell us is how infectious the virus is in these situations. Therefore, frequent handwashing is recommended. This should be done every time you enter your home and regularly throughout the day. It also helps to do daily cleaning of commonly touched household surfaces. This includes doorknobs (inside and out), fridge doors, drawer handles, cell phones, computer, taps, etc. Lysol disinfectant wipes work but if you don’t have them, soap (or bleach) and water are good too.
3. Stay at Home, Don’t Roam (Too Far)
Since none of us has immunity to the virus, the number one thing we can all do is stay at home. Any engagement with someone outside your household is an opportunity for the virus to spread and bring it back home. Going out for essentials such as food, household supplies and medications is okay. But that morning coffee, the hardware store or the running store are not essential.
That being said, exercising outdoors is encouraged but only activities that are done alone such as walking, running and cycling. The recommendation is to stay 2 metres (6 feet, one hockey stick, or two baseball bats) away from someone not in your household. However, this may depend on the activity you’re doing.
A recent computer simulation found saliva travelled 4-5 metres when walking, 10 metres when running or slowly cycling and 20 metres when cycling fast. However, some experts are calling into question its findings. Regardless, if there’s space, it’s not a bad idea to be further away from people.
4. To Wear a Mask or Not
Whether to wear a mask or not has probably been the most controversial guideline, and it keeps changing. There is widespread agreement that masks are needed for those caring for someone who has the virus. In this case N95 masks, which form a seal and filter the air, and protective eyewear are recommended. Beyond that, there is little agreement.
A number of countries require everyone to wear masks in public. In Canada and the US, health authorities have recommended people wear masks where physical distancing is difficult to achieve (such as at grocery stores, transit). In these cases, people should use homemade masks to save medical masks for healthcare workers.
This gives the impression that standard surgical and homemade masks are effective at stopping the virus. This may not be the case. For both types of masks, air can travel through and around the mask. Essentially drawing in any particles in the vicinity.
Also, a mask doesn’t protect the eyes through which a virus can pass. Nor does it address the main path of infection, which is through contact. Generally, this happens when the hands touch an infected surface and then touch the mouth, nose or eyes. And some people find they touch their face more when wearing mask.
However, masks may be effective at stopping the spread of the virus from asymptomatic people. And this is the main reason to recommend widespread mask use. You can find tips on using using masks here. Be mindful though, masks do not replace proper physical distancing and handwashing.
With health professionals, scientists and governments learning more about COVID-19 as the days continue, we’ll have a better understanding on how to contain it and keep people safe. As a result, guidelines, and even the above information, will remain fluid and change as we learn more. Please stay safe and be healthy.
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