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Q&A: Local doctors, health officials dispel myths, misinformation circulating about COVID-19

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — As the spread of COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus, continues, so does the proliferation of myths and misinformation, particularly via social media.

But some social media apps have announced steps to combat those myths.

TikTok, a social media app popular among young people, announced on Feb. 29 a partnership with the World Health Organization to spread veritable information about the coronavirus in addition to the best public health practices. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on March 3 Facebook’s efforts to vet misinformation and conspiracy theories and redirect users to information provided by WHO or local health authorities. Twitter announced a similar plan the following day to prioritize credible sources like the WHO in its coronavirus searches on the platform.

Additionally, the social media platforms have encouraged users to report misinformation if they come across it.

Even so, it’s still possible for inaccurate information about COVID-19 to slip through the cracks.

Rowan County public health director Nina Oliver said that a lot of information on social media includes sources that are unreliable, adding that people should “focus on facts and not fiction.” She encouraged social media users to ensure articles are from reliable sources and to “ask medical providers, not their best friend’s cousin” for information about the coronavirus.

The Salisbury Post spoke to Oliver, Novant Health Rowan Medical Center Emergency Director Dr. John Bream and joined a conference call on Tuesday with State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, who fielded questions from news outlets across the state regarding COVID-19.

The three health professionals responded to questions regarding some of the most common topics circulating social media about the coronavirus.

 

Q: Some people are saying the novel coronavirus is “just the flu” and that more people die from the flu than they have from COVID-19. How, and in what ways, does COVID-19 differ from the flu?

Oliver: While both COVID-19 and the flu are respiratory illnesses, the two are “completely different viruses.” Symptoms of the flu include fever, body aches, chills and sometimes a cough. She noted that body aches and chills “haven’t typically been seen with the coronavirus.”

Oliver added that vaccines and treatments for the flu are currently available, unlike COVID-19, and that no data as of now can accurately compare COVID-19 with the flu or evaluate a correlation for the two viruses.

Oliver added that she can sympathize with people who feel anxious and panicked because she recognizes there is still a lot unknown about the coronavirus and that the public has yet to deal with a virus quite like this.

Bream: The two viruses differ in the way they present themselves, particularly with the incubation period of symptoms. It takes only 24-48 hours to become symptomatic with the flu, while it takes up to five days for COVID-19. That means the potential to transmit the coronavirus to others is at least twice the potential of passing on the flu.

Bream added that the death rate of COVID-19 patients is 12 times higher than deaths from the flu. The worldwide death rate is around 4.5% and the U.S. death rate is about 1.5%. Those percents are calculated by dividing the number of deaths due to the coronavirus by the number of positive cases.

 

Q: Are only the elderly and people with underlying health conditions at risk of complications from COVID-19? Are young people still at risk? And are other demographics, like pregnant women, at risk?

Oliver: “A good thing in the data with children is that they’re not as impacted as the older adult health population with underlying health conditions.”

And while there are no positive cases of children or pregnant women in Rowan County, she said health professionals don’t yet know the full risk of people within the 18-49 age group.

Bream: COVID-19 has not been as discriminating of age in the U.S. as it has been in other countries, but no one knows exactly why that is.

“The healthier you are, the better you’ll likely do,” he said, but added that the nine cases of pregnant women in China who were infected all did seemingly well. Though, it’s best to still consider pregnant women at risk.

Tilson: While there is no data currently showing risks specific to pregnant women, those women should still “be vigilant and cautious” as they are at higher risks of other complications during pregnancy.

 

Q: Some say this is all mass hysteria and panic being promoted by the media and the government. What would you say to people who feel that the seriousness of the virus is being blown out of proportion?

Oliver: “You need to watch the numbers,” referring to the rapid infection rate in Italy. “We’re on the same path and should have (taken measures) weeks ago,” adding that she’s still “glad they’re being done now,” nonetheless.

Bream: The care for sick individuals has gotten better as the medical community has learned more, using China and its experience as a guide.

“It’s not an overreaction because this virus does not discriminate,” he said, noting that 1 out of 6 individuals infected with COVID-19 across the world have been admitted to a hospital and ended up “very sick and staying for weeks.” Bream said hospital systems are going to get overwhelmed and beds aren’t going to be freed up if the stay is expected to be longer for coronavirus patients.

Tilson: The outlook for COVID-19 in the state is “in the acceleration phase,” based on the rate of community spread, which is why the measures government officials have put into place have been “proactive.” She added that those measures help “flatten the curve.”

She said health professionals are using “evidence-based surveillance strategies” to better understand the spread of COVID-19, which will ultimately help understand how much stricter social distancing measures should be or if those measures can be pulled back.

 

Q: Some have said they were experiencing symptoms similar to COVID-19 months before it infected the U.S. Could the virus have been here longer than we originally thought?

Oliver: On behalf of Oliver, Rowan County Public Health Nurse Director Meredith Littell said such an assessment is still premature as there is not yet enough data. Additionally, it’s unclear if health officials will ever know if it was around longer than the U.S. believed.

Bream: “I think we’ll never know that for sure,” he said, adding that “it’s likely to think it’s been here longer” based on data collected and the consensus opinion among the medical community.

 

Q: Will the cost to the American economy if the country continues to be somewhat shutdown be greater than the cost of American lives if we lift existing restrictions?

Oliver: “I will always put American lives above anything,” she said, adding that “if we want to make sure lives are saved, I do believe procedures and social distancing and prevention measures need to be put in place.”

And though she acknowledged the virus will be a big blow to the economy, it’s “our duty as leaders in our community to come up with plans of action to lessen the blow.”

Bream: “The quicker we shut this thing down, the quicker the economic impact will subside,” he said, adding that he feels it’s “only a matter of time before the state has to do a stay-at-home order.”

He said “we’re flattening the curve on the economy” and spreading the economic impact for a longer time, but he noted that after four months, China is normalizing again. He anticipates the U.S. could expect a similar impact using China’s experience.

 

Oliver emphasized that patients who are feeling ill or mild symptoms such as a cough or fever should contact their health care provider first since resources are limited during this time. Symptoms of COVID-19 include a dry cough, fever, sore throat and difficulty breathing.

As of Wednesday, Rowan County has six confirmed cases of COVID-19 while North Carolina has 504 cases. And 10,489 individuals have been tested in the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website. Rowan County only has a “ballpark figure” of the total number of tests conducted locally because, while the county health department is notified of each positive case, Oliver said, not all providers report every negative test result.  Many samples collected locally are conducted at private labs.

Even then, public health officials know they’re not capturing all cases because testing has been prioritized for the seriously ill, health care workers, first responders, patients in the hospital and high-risk individuals, Tilson said.

Patients should expect coronavirus test results to take between five and eight days during this time, Oliver said.

Oliver also encourages calling the health department hotline at 980-432-1800 or visiting rowancountync.gov/COVID-19.

More information can be found by visiting the CDC website.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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