Debunking COVID-19 Myths: Facts You Need to Know

An infectious disease expert separates fact from fiction about coronavirus.

COVID-19 myths vs. facts
COVID-19 myths vs. facts

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, scientists have been racing to learn about the virus and how to fight it. But as the virus has spread, so have a lot of COVID-19 myths. In this interview with Health Matters, Dr. Sorana Segal-Maurer, director of the Dr. James J. Rahal, Jr. Division of Infectious Diseases at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens, debunks several COVID-19 myths and sets the record straight about what scientists know, and don’t know.

Hot weather will stop the spread of the coronavirus.

FICTION: With summer approaching, some people are anticipating a drop in COVID-19 cases. “This is based on seeing decreased numbers of upper-respiratory infections during the warmer months,” says Dr. Segal-Maurer. However, a panel convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urged caution in assuming higher temperatures and humidity will result in a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases. The report found that “although the experimental studies show a relationship between higher temperatures and humidity levels, and reduced survival of SARS-CoV-2 in the laboratory, there are many other factors … that influence and determine the transmission rates among humans in the ‘real world.’”

It’s a myth that COVID-19 will disappear in the summer. Don’t let your guard down, even if transmission appears to be less, Dr. Segal-Maurer advises. “These infections do not disappear completely,” she says. “Social distancing in an outdoor setting may be a reason why we sometimes see a decrease with other viral infections. However, during these early days of the pandemic, it does not mean that we can stop wearing masks when out in public yet.”

Dr. Sorana Segal-Maurer debunks COVID-19 myths

Dr. Sorana Segal-Maurer

COVID-19 severely affects the older population.

FACT: COVID-19 continues to perplex many doctors and scientists, with symptoms ranging from life threatening to none at all. Experts have concluded that age appears to be one of the risk factors. One recent analysis of Chinese data found that for patients 80 and older, the chance of death was more than 13%. For those in their 30s, it was about 0.15%, and for those under 20 it was almost zero. A study of early U.S. cases by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had similar findings.

“We have seen consistent information that those who are 65 years and older have increased risk for severe disease,” says Dr. Segal-Maurer. “This is due to multiple reasons, including age itself and the impact on the immune system, additional comorbid conditions that are more prevalent with increased age, and increased possibility of living in a congregate setting, such as an assisted living home or skilled nursing facility.”

This doesn’t mean that COVID-19 doesn’t affect younger people. An early CDC report states that 20% of those hospitalized were between the ages of 20 to 44. And even though children have been less severely affected, the New York State Department of Health issued a warning May 6 about cases of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which potentially is associated with COVID-19. While the condition remains rare, several children have died from it, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo advised parents to be on alert for symptoms including prolonged fever, rash, abdominal distress, vomiting, and diarrhea.

If people test positive for coronavirus antibodies, it means they are immune to the disease.

TO BE DETERMINED: Although testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies indicates that the body has mounted a response to the disease, scientists remain uncertain what it means long term. “As the various tests also cross-react with other coronaviruses, it may not mean you are immune to COVID-19,” says Dr. Segal-Maurer. “In addition, we do not know for certain how long the antibodies will last and if they will prevent future infection.”

She advises continued caution: “Having positive antibodies does not exclude the possibility of ongoing viral shedding during the recovery phase; therefore, social distancing, mask use, and strict hand hygiene continue to be important.”

Hydroxychloroquine is an effective drug to combat COVID-19.

FICTION: Hydroxychloroquine, a drug that is approved for malaria treatment and is also used to treat lupus and other autoimmune diseases, received a lot of attention in March when President Donald Trump touted it as something that could be “really incredible” to fight COVID-19. That endorsement led to a surge in prescriptions, even though the CDC expressed caution in using the drug as a treatment. In fact, on May 7, researchers from NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that COVID-19 patients who received hydroxychloroquine fared no better than patients who did not. With nearly 1,400 participants, it was the largest study to date.

Dr. Segal-Maurer adds about this COVID-19 myth: ”Although official guidance around hydroxychloroquine use was only to be considered as part of an investigational protocol for hospitalized patients, that has now changed. With increasing reports of its lack of efficacy and increased toxicity, it’s strongly advised that it no longer be used in the setting of COVID-19.”

Home remedies like eating garlic, sipping water every 15 minutes, or taking vitamin C will protect people from the new coronavirus.

FICTION: There’s plenty of merit to maintaining healthy habits — such as not smoking, getting enough sleep, and eating well — to support your immune system, but measures such as supplemental vitamins and home remedies won’t protect you from the coronavirus. Internet posts touting the positive effects of hot peppers and garlic water are COVID-19 myths, with no science behind the claims as they relate to coronavirus. “There are no methods to prevent or protect from COVID-19 other than social distancing, strict hand hygiene, mask use when in public situations, and ensuring adherence with any prescription medications for current underlying diseases,” says Dr. Segal-Maurer.

Losing smell and taste are symptoms of COVID-19.

FACT: As doctors learn more about coronavirus, the list of potential symptoms associated with COVID-19 grow. The initial symptoms listed by the CDC were fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Since then, the CDC has expanded the list of symptoms to include chills, muscle pain, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. Much like the other symptoms, losing those senses in and of itself does not mean you have COVID-19. “It is important to remember that a number of upper-respiratory illnesses lead to loss of taste and smell, including sinusitis and bronchitis,” says Dr. Segal-Maurer. But being aware of all these symptoms will help protect you and those around you.

Sorana Segal-Maurer, M.D., is director of the Dr. James J. Rahal, Jr. Infectious Diseases Division at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens and professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. In addition, she serves as program director for the NewYork-Presbyterian Queens Infectious Diseases fellowship program.

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