As COVID-19 spreads in the U.S. and around the world, half-truths and misinformation are also spreading. Because we’re still learning about the virus, and because the situation around it is rapidly evolving, it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is false.
Health misinformation can range from the promotion of fake cures to "rumors about the origin of the outbreak,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in testimony before a Congressional committee last week.
We’ve seen this happen before. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Sell and her team found that 10 percent of tweets related to Ebola contained false or half-true information. While her team has not systematically studied the COVID-19 outbreak, she’s already seen misinformation circulating — including about false cures and conspiracies about the outbreak’s origin.
The spread of false information during a pandemic can have serious consequences. According to Sell, “misinformation can substantially impede the effectiveness of public health response measures, increase societal discord, reduce trust in governments, leaders and responders, and increase stigmatization.”
In a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to rely on trusted news outlets and information sources. We also must adapt according to the latest recommendations and information.
“Use evidence over emotion when thinking about disease outbreaks and how you protect yourself, your family, and your community,” says Erin Sorrell, a member of Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security and an assistant professor of microbiology.
To set the record straight after a crazy week of COVID-19 news, here is a summary of some of the advice you should follow — and what you should be wary of popping up in your newsfeed.
Keep in mind that recommendations are subject to change following updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your local health department or the World Health Organization.
Hand Washing and Hand Sanitizer
To prevent COVID-19 infection, Sorrell recommends frequent hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer if you can’t use soap and water. You should also stay home if you or someone in your family feels sick. Staying 3 to 6 feet away from someone who is sick can also help prevent the spread.
“The virus loves close contact,” Sorrell says.
Sneezing can spread the virus, but it isn’t necessarily a symptom. Sneezing, itchy eyes and stuffy noses are the hallmark symptoms of seasonal allergies. (Last weekend, passengers on a flight to Newark became so upset about someone sneezing from allergies that pilots grounded the plane in Denver.)
Coronavirus vs. the Flu
Most COVID-19 cases are mild, and the symptoms are similar to seasonal flu or the common cold. The most common symptoms are cough, fever and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. Patients can also develop nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If you feel sick, but not sick enough to go into the emergency room, call your doctor for guidance and plan to stay home to rest up.
Avoiding public spaces when you don’t feel well, even if you don’t feel terribly ill, means that you won’t spread your illness to others. If you think you’ve been exposed, it’s also a good idea to avoid public areas — a new study found that the average incubation period for the virus is five days without symptoms.
If you have COVID-19 and don’t realize it, you could risk spreading the disease to someone with a high risk of developing a severe infection, such as the elderly or people with underlying health problems. Slowing down the spread of the disease will also hopefully prevent our health systems from becoming overwhelmed — and, hopefully, save lives, says Sorrell.
No ‘Cure’ for Coronavirus
There is also a lot of information circulating that is not backed up by the science. For example, there have been lots of assertions that the virus doesn’t like heat and will go away in the spring or summer. At this time, “there is no data out there saying that that’s the case,” says Sorrell.
There are also many claims that certain products or equipment are effective against the virus. “Unless they have been proven through clinical testing or through product testing, those claims are most likely false,” says Sorrell.
While some existing antiviral medications are being tested against the virus, no new or existing medication has yet been approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19. If someone tries to sell you a coronavirus cure, it probably has not been tested and approved for that purpose. Pharmaceutical companies and the National Institutes of Health are working on a COVID-19 vaccine, but it will likely be at least a year before it’s ready to go to market, says Sorrell.
On that note, face masks also won’t protect healthy people from contracting the virus. Face masks are most effective when worn by health care workers and people who are sick.
“It’s important those types of supplies go to those who are in need because they are completely ineffective for those that are healthy,” Sorrell says.