Separating fact from fiction about COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has lasted long enough that we now know some incontrovertible truths about the disease that defined 2020 — and will continue to impact 2021.

Nine months and counting into the COVID-19 pandemic — really, it often feels more like nine years — and some things are finally becoming more certain about what has heretofore been a fairly elusive disease.

That doesn’t mean some things haven’t been true from the beginning, nor that misinformation doesn’t still abound. But with the first doses of vaccines arriving right around the start of the new year, it finally feels like we can start to see a corner in this protracted public health battle, even if we haven’t quite turned it.

So, after nearly a year of dealing with COVID-19, what have we really learned about it, who is actually vulnerable to a catastrophic event, and how should we proceed accordingly in terms of public-health and economic policy? IB explores the facts and the myths of the virus that caused the 2020 pandemic and will stubbornly linger well into 2021. Information is courtesy of the Mayo Clinic Health System, UW Health, Medical College of Wisconsin, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and the International Monetary Fund.

HEALTH MYTHS AND FACTS

Myth: COVID-19 is over-hyped — it’s no worse than the seasonal flu.

Fact: While it’s true that some people might develop only a mild case of COVID-19 or show no symptoms at all,
this virus spreads more rapidly than the seasonal flu and is believed to have a higher mortality rate. In a typical year, 20,000 to 30,000 Americans die from the flu. As of early December 2020, more than 274,000 Americans, including more than 3,700 in Wisconsin, have died of COVID-19 — more than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War or World War I. In fact, the first week of December produced four of the deadlist days in U.S. history. That said, the seasonal flu isn’t a risk to dismiss either: It kills healthy kids and adults every year. It’s also possible to get both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, which can lead to more serious outcomes.

Further, severe illness, such as lung injury, may be more frequent with COVID-19 than with influenza and COVID-19 can cause different complications than the flu, such as blood clots and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.

Myth: The number of COVID-19 deaths is much lower, and the disease is overblown.

Fact: This myth stems from a CDC table that showed the majority of people who died of COVID-19 had multiple causes listed on their death certificate. The myth speculates the majority of these deaths were the result of another preexisting condition, such as heart or lung conditions, weakened immune systems, severe obesity, or diabetes.

The problem with this reasoning is the vast majority of these people could have lived much longer if they had not contracted COVID-19. The CDC explains, “For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to COVID-19, on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death.” This aligns with what public health officials have said before: The risk of developing dangerous symptoms of COVID-19 may be increased for people who are older and people of any age who have other serious health problems.

Myth: Spikes in COVID-19 cases are because of increased testing.

Fact: The rise in infections is not related to increased testing. Of greater concern than the number of tests performed is the increase in the percentage of positive results. This means that the virus is quickly spreading in our communities.

COVID-19 testing is critical, as it helps people make decisions to self-isolate and guides health care providers’ decisions for medical treatment. Widespread testing also allows local health departments to monitor the virus’ spread and make recommendations to schools and businesses.

Myth: We can achieve herd immunity by letting the virus spread through the population.

Fact: Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected — not just those who are immune. There are some significant problems with relying on community infection to create herd immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19. First, it isn’t yet clear if infection with the COVID-19 virus makes a person immune to future infection. If it does not create immunity, herd immunity will not work.

Even if COVID-19 infection creates long-lasting immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, a large number of people would have to become infected to reach the herd immunity threshold. Experts estimate that 70% of the population in the U.S. — more than 200 million people — would have to recover from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic. This amount of infection also could lead to serious, and potentially long-term, complications and millions of deaths. If many people become sick with COVID-19 at once, the health care system could quickly become overwhelmed.

Myth: Only the elderly or those with underlying health conditions will get seriously ill and require hospitalization for COVID-19.

Fact: People of all ages can contract COVID-19. The risk of developing dangerous symptoms from COVID-19 may be increased in people who are older or in people of any age who have other serious health problems, such as heart or lung conditions, weakened immune systems, severe obesity, or diabetes.

Most children with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, some children get severely ill from COVID-19. They might require hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe. In rare cases, they may die.

Although the CDC reports fewer children have been sick with COVID-19 compared with adults, children can be infected and become ill with the virus that causes COVID-19 and also spread the virus to others. Children, like adults, who have COVID-19 but have no symptoms (asymptomatic) can still spread the virus to others.

COVID-19 continues to be more fatal in people older than 85 and those who have underlying health conditions. But younger people are still at risk: About 20% of total COVID-19 deaths have involved patients younger than 65, and even more survivors of the virus have still gotten sick enough to be hospitalized.

A May 2020 report by the CDC showed that a quarter of the patients who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia were not considered high risk because of age or an underlying health condition. Many who recover from COVID-19 also see long-term damage from the disease. And in recent months, there have been reports nationwide of COVID-19 cases surging among people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, fueling community spread and lowering the average age of those infected.

People of all ages are being hospitalized with COVID-19, and the average age of patients hospitalized because of COVID-19 fluctuates daily.

Myth: The quality of COVID-19 data cannot be trusted.

Fact: Early in the pandemic, information about COVID-19 was changing often as physicians and scientists learned about the new virus. This may have led some people to be concerned with the reliability of the data and information. In addition, partisan politcal approaches and messaging led to further skepticism.

However, hospitals across the upper Midwest are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of patients needing to be hospitalized for COVID-19. This situation has the potential to overwhelm hospital resources and impact their ability to provide preventive and emergent care in our communities.

Myth: Cold weather and snow can kill COVID-19.

Fact: There is no scientific evidence to believe colder weather can kill COVID-19 or other viruses. The normal human body temperature remains around 97.7 F to 98.6 F, regardless of the external temperature or weather.

Myth: I’m currently taking an antibiotic, so this may prevent or treat COVID-19.

Fact: Antibiotics treat only bacteria, not viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a virus. Therefore, antibiotics should not be used for prevention or treatment. However, some people who are hospitalized for COVID-19 may receive antibiotics because they have a different bacterial infection at the same time.

Myth: Fabric masks don’t protect yourself or others from COVID-19.

Fact: Simply put, wearing a cloth mask helps decrease the spread of COVID-19. Research shows that a significant number of people with COVID-19 lack symptoms or are considered asymptomatic. These people may not know they are transmitting the virus to others when they talk, sneeze, cough, or raise their voice (e.g., singing or shouting). You should wear a cloth mask to reduce the chance of transmitting respiratory droplets (spit) to others around you. You should wear a mask to protect others, and they should wear a mask to protect you.

Myth: There are already good treatment drugs for COVID-19.

Fact: While researchers and clinicians worldwide and at UW Health continue to work feverishly to develop a vaccine and new treatments, there is currently only one FDA-approved treatment for COVID-19. An experimental antiviral drug, remdesivir, had shown promise as a treatment for COVID-19 patients who require supplemental oxygen, and received FDA approval in October. However, the WHO has since recommended against the use of remdesivir in COVID-19 patients.

Standard treatment for the seriously ill consists of oxygen, assisted-breathing technologies, and the regular standard of care for pneumonia patients.

In the past, the malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been suggested as treatments for COVID-19, but these medications can have risks — a man in Arizona died after ingesting a version of chloroquine used to kill parasites in aquarium fish — and the data on their effectiveness has been limited and conflicting.

Myth: Home remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19.

Fact: Sorry, but there’s no evidence that garlic, chlorine, warm water, lemon juice, or super doses of vitamins can stave off this virus. Your best bet is to prevent exposure by avoiding close contact, wearing a mask in public areas, and practicing good hygiene.

Myth: The COVID-19 virus was deliberately created by humans.

Fact: COVID-19 has the hallmarks of a zoonotic disease, one that arises in animals and then jumps to humans. Nonetheless, conspiracy theories have ranged from the idea that COVID-19 was created in a biological warfare laboratory to a theory that it’s caused or spread by 5G technology. 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 (hence the 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.

Researchers 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.

Myth: Hospitals and clinics aren’t safe now.

Fact: It’s understandable that you might feel nervous to go into a hospital or clinic during a pandemic, but health care facilities are taking a number of precautions to keep patients and staff safe. Avoiding or postponing needed medical care also brings its own risks. If you have a medical concern or are due for a checkup, reach out to your primary care provider. In many cases, you might be able to do a video visit.

TRUTH ABOUT COVID-19 VACCINES

While a number of COVID-19 vaccines are being rushed into production, most Americans won’t have the opportunity to receive a shot until well into 2021. However, with the possibility of a limited supply of one or more COVID-19 vaccines becoming available soon, accurate vaccine information is critical.

Fact: COVID-19 vaccines will not give you COVID-19.

None of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development in the United States use the live virus that causes COVID-19. There are several different types of vaccines in development. However, the goal for each of them is to teach our immune systems how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19. Sometimes this process can cause symptoms, such as fever. These symptoms are normal and are a sign that the body is building immunity.

It typically takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity after vaccination. That means it’s possible a person could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after vaccination and get sick. This is because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.

Fact: COVID-19 vaccines will not cause you to test positive on COVID-19 viral tests.

Vaccines currently in clinical trials in the United States won’t cause you to test positive on viral tests, which are used to see if you have a current infection.

If your body develops an immune response, which is the goal of vaccination, there is a possibility you may test positive on some antibody tests. Antibody testsindicate you had a previous infection and that you may have some level of protection against the virus. Experts are currently looking at how COVID-19 vaccination may affect antibody testing results.

Fact: People who have gotten sick with COVID-19 may still benefit from getting vaccinated.

Due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that re-infection with COVID-19 is possible, people may be advised to get a COVID-19 vaccine even if they have been sick with COVID-19 before.

At this time, experts do not know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19. The immunity someone gains from having an infection, called natural immunity, varies from person to person. Some early evidence suggests natural immunity may not last very long.

It’s unknown how long immunity produced by vaccination lasts until there is a vaccine and more data on how well it works.

Fact: Getting vaccinated can help prevent getting sick with COVID-19.

While many people with COVID-19 have only a mild illness, others may get a severe illness, or they may even die. There is no way to know how COVID-19 will affect you, even if you are not at increased risk of severe complications. If you get sick, you also may spread the disease to friends, family, and others around you while you are sick. COVID-19 vaccination helps protect you by creating an antibody response without having to experience sickness.

Fact: Receiving an mRNA vaccine will not alter your DNA.

mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid and can most easily be described as instructions for how to make a protein or even just a piece of a protein. mRNA is not able to alter or modify a person’s genetic makeup (DNA). The mRNA from a COVID-19 vaccine never enter the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA are kept. This means the mRNA does not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. Instead, COVID-19 vaccines that use mRNA work with the body’s natural defenses to safely develop protection (immunity) to disease.

ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS

According to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in January 2020. Following a widening outbreak in March and April, the number of new cases declined after a range of containment measures were put in place. Infections rose again in early summer as economic activity and traveling resumed, but gradually declined over the summer following stricter prevention measures. However, new cases picked up again in September and continued on an upward trend for the remainder of the year. Following a deep contraction in the second quarter that reflected the impact of the containment measures, the U.S. economy rebounded strongly by an annualized rate of 33.1% as of mid-November. The unemployment rate stayed at 6.9% in October.

As of mid-November, many states began again imposing new restrictions on business and activities. Some states closed indoor dining and entertainment venues and banned indoor gatherings in the whole state or in some regions. While schools reopened in the fall in most states with varying approaches — in-person instruction, virtual, or hybrid — many districts reverted to virtual instruction as positive case numbers grew throughout the fall.

In a mid-November interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group, top U.S. virologist Dr. Anthony Fauci said he did not favor a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19.

“You can get a lot done without necessarily locking down if you adhere to the fundamental principles that many of us, myself included, have been talking about for quite a while now,” Fauci said.

Fauci noted that wearing a mask and physical distancing were the most effective means to prevent infection.

“If you do those things uniformly throughout the country, not in a scattered way — some do it, some don’t — but as a nation, buckle down and respond, we can turn this around,” Fauci explained.

Fauci’s comments were made after an adviser to President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force recommended shutting down the economy for as much as four to six weeks to reduce the number of cases. Under the proposal, the federal government would pay workers for lost wages.

Biden has also stated that he would put in place a nationwide lockdown if public health experts said it was necessary.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Governor Tony Evers has clashed frequently with the GOP-led state Senate and Assembly over his public health measures, including an extension this past spring of his earlier safer-at-home order. However, despite calling for Wisconsinites to remain at home during the holidays and not venture out to see loved ones, Evers has not indicated recently that he intends to ask for a more widespread economic shutdown to get the Badger State’s high number of positive COVID rates under control.

According to a survey released in early December by the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, 78% of Dane County businesses have experienced a decline in revenue during the pandemic, with 30% losing more than half their revenue. Additionally, many businesses reported dissatisfaction with governmental responses to business needs during the pandemic, with 59% rating local officials as below average or poor.

Ninety-one percent of businesses responding to the survey had reduced spending locally. Other relevant findings include:

  • 66% listed consumer and employee confidence as their most pressing need;
  • 53% have experienced a reduction in employee benefits or workforce;
  • 3% of businesses have already closed, with an additional 1% potentially closing in the next month and another 30% expecting to close by June 2021, if existing government regulations are unchanged;
  • 57% are utilizing at least some remote work, up from 28% pre–pandemic;
  • 13% rate Dane County’s business climate as above average or excellent, compared to 81% pre–pandemic; and
  • 25% rate local elected officials’ performance during the pandemic as above average or excellent.

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