COVID-19 Internet Myths

As more people isolate and turn to the Internet for pandemic information, COVID-19 myths are spreading. Here are a few things that people believe that aren’t borne out by the latest facts.

MYTH: There are already good treatment drugs out there

In the past week, the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been suggested as treatments for COVID-19.  These medications can have risks (A man in Arizona died after ingesting a version of chloroquine used to kill parasites in aquarium fish.) However, a small study published in late March by scientists at Zhejiang University in China found no difference between COVID-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine and those who did not receive it. Those results conflict with another early report out of France that the drug did help clear the virus in a small number of people. An experimental antiviral drug, remdesivir, is also being tested now in six worldwide clinical trials of pneumonia patients, and may soon be available more broadly. The CDC has more details on the current status of drugs being tried to treat this condition.

The bottom line: There’s no drug cure yet, and treatment for the seriously ill consists of oxygen, assisted breathing technologies, and the regular standard of care for pneumonia patients.  Ingesting these medications without close oversight by your doctor might be more harmful than beneficial at this time.

MYTH:  Younger adults aren’t at risk

While the early data from China suggested that those aged 60 and older are at greatest risk, cases in the United States raise concerns about younger adults. A new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study released March 18 shows that 38 percent of COVID-19 patients who were sick enough to be hospitalized in an intensive care unit (ICU) were younger than age 55. Of the total, 20 percent of patients admitted to ICUs were between the ages of 20 and 44. Data from Europe also appears to show a greater threat to younger adults than previously believed. The disease continues to be more fatal in people older than 85, who account for 34 percent of deaths, and in people aged 65 to 84, who account for 46 percent of deaths. Deaths in people ages 20 to 64 accounted for 20 percent of total deaths.

The bottom line: Young adults are not immune from this serious illness and should protect themselves from exposure.

MYTH: People who feel well don’t need to take precautions

It is looking like a sizable number of people can be infected by COVID-19 and show no symptoms. A new study of cruise ship passengers on the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined in the port of Kyoto for more than two weeks, provided scientists data on how the virus spreads in an enclosed population. After testing, they found that about 18 percent of 634 passengers infected with the virus showed no symptoms. Another study, of Japanese citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China, showed about 30 percent had the virus but no symptoms. Scientists don’t yet know if COVID-19 will be like measles and norovirus, diseases in which people who don’t have symptoms can infect others.

The bottom line: There’s a big threat to public health if infected people with no symptoms don’t isolate and spread the virus to others. So take all precautions even if you are feeling well.

MYTH: The COVID-19 virus was created in a biological warfare laboratory

A gene study by a team of international researchers and published March 17 in the prestigious journal Nature debunks the idea that the virus was built in a lab. They studied the “spike” proteins that arise from the virus, which look like crowns and give COVID-19 its name,  “coronavirus.” These crown spikes are also what makes the disease so infectious because they latch onto human cells and crack them open, injecting the virus. They found that the spikes shared gene sequences with previously known coronaviruses in bats and in pangolins, both animals that are found in live animal markets in China. If COVID-19 had been “engineered” to infect humans, the authors say that scientists would have used a “backbone” known to cause human illness, rather than one found in animals.

The bottom line: COVID-19 has the hallmarks of a zoonotic disease, one that arises in animals and then jumps to humans.

MYTH: Ibuprofen can hurt people with COVID-19 infections

This one arose when the French health minister tweeted that no one should take ibuprofen to treat a COVID-19 infection and should instead take acetaminophen. But there is no research to back this up and on March 18, the European Medicines Agency said so. The CDC has not issued an opinion. But this article in the New York Times suggests reasons you may not want to take medicine to reduce a fever associated with COVID-19. Fever is your body’s way to kill a virus. In other infectious diseases, reducing a fever has been shown to increase the length of time a patient is infected. Also, ibuprofen can cause asthma in people who are allergic to it, so that could make symptoms worse in those people.

The bottom line: While there’s no evidence on ibuprofen risks for most people, consult with your healthcare provider on your best treatment for the virus.

MYTH:  There is no way to safely shop and transport your groceries

Many recommendations – often conflicting – are in circulation, creating confusion about safe shopping and transporting of groceries.

The bottom line:

Above all:

  • Wash and/or sanitize your hands before and after you go to the store.
  • Stay at least 6 feet from other people.

The coronavirus spreads mostly from human contact. While the virus can live on a box or can (i.e. if someone coughs or sneezes and then touches the item) the amount of virus declines significantly over time.

With this in mind, here are some common-sense guidelines:

At the store:

  • Sanitize your cart handle and your hands.
  • Keep a safe (6 feet) distance from other people and keep your hands away from your face.
  • Don’t use reusable shopping bags.
  • Wear a face mask that covers your mouth and nose.

When you get home:

  • Wipe down your car’s steering wheel and wash your hands once you get home.
  • The chances of the virus being on a food package that you bring home are small. Still, it doesn’t hurt to wipe items down that you need right away. For items that don’t need to be cooled, you may wish to leave products in paper-based containers out for 24 hours and products in plastic/glass/metal containers out for 72 hours.
  • Rinse produce in cold water. Do not clean fruit or vegetables with solutions containing bleach, detergent or soap.
  • Wash your hands again after putting groceries away.

More frequently asked questions and answers about food safety are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

MYTH: You should wash your fruits and vegetables in water that is mixed with bleach, soap or vinegar

None of these ideas are scientifically proven methods of removing coronavirus from produce. Bleach in particular is dangerous to use for washing food – even in a highly diluted solution. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), consumers should not wash fruits or vegetables with detergents or soap. These products could be ingested and could cause mild stomach irritation with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain.

The bottom line: Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables with running cold water, as you normally would.