8 Dangerous Myths About Coronavirus Debunked

No, a saltwater gargle won't kill the virus. Local health experts help us determine what's true and what's false about COVID-19.

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Long before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly disrupted life around the world, America already had a problem with facts and misinformation. Now, with the virus crossing borders at warp speed, the problem has only intensified. Public officials have skirted scientific facts and celebrities have used their platforms to spread conspiracy theories to millions of followers. So it’s no surprise that everyday people have had difficulty finding the right information about COVID-19.

NextHealth PHL gathered the most common misunderstandings about COVID-19 and asked Philadelphia’s top medical experts to parse out what information is false, true or somewhere in between.

COVID-19 is not that serious. It’s just a bunch of hype. FALSE

The numbers speak for themselves. To date, at least 8,800 people in 145 countries have died from COVID-19. This week, Italy reported 368 COVID-19 deaths in a single day, which means someone in Italy died every four minutes from the virus that day. But people who downplay the impact of coronavirus often point to the fact that not everyone who gets infected with COVID-19 will die. This is true. While more than 210,000 people have been infected with the virus, including reported cases in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., an estimated 82,000 people have recovered.

Aditi Joshi, an emergency medicine physician at Jefferson Health and medical director of its telehealth platform JeffConnect, says just because the virus has varying degrees of severity, doesn’t mean preventative measures should be ignored.

“For many people, it may only be cold symptoms. However, for others, it can be quite serious and can lead to respiratory failure and death,” Joshi said. “As it’s a disease brought on by contact, it’s upon all of us to take care of each other and isolate.”

It only affects older people. Children can’t get it. FALSE

Early studies of the outbreak in China showed children accounted for the fewest and least severe cases of COVID-19 infections. These same studies revealed that the virus tends to have a much more devastating effect on adults above age 70. A more recent study of over 2,000 children who tested positive for COVID-19 in China, however, found that young children (those under age 10) and infants were particularly vulnerable to having severe cases of infection.

Jen Caudle, a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Medicine, says the public’s focus on the most impacted population may have helped fuel the rumor that other populations can’t be affected.

“This myth has persisted because we keep talking about the high-risk nature of older people and people with underlying medical conditions. These are people who tend to do worse when they get it. I think, somehow, people have been led to believe that that means children or young people are not being infected and that is false,” Caudle said. “Children, infants, young adults, teenagers, people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or any age can get coronavirus.”

I’m young. It’ll just be like getting a bad cold. Besides, I’m only contagious if I feel sick. FALSE

While scientists are still learning about the virus and how severe it can be, young people are not exempt from being hospitalized or experiencing the more serious effects of COVID-19. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 20 percent of people known to have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in the U.S. were between 20 and 44 years of age. Twelve percent of people in the same age group were admitted to an intensive care unit.

“The risk of severe illness is higher in older patients, but there are still some young patients that develop very severe disease,” said Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Einstein Medical Center.

More importantly, Joshi added, young people of all ages can also spread it.

“It’s important to remember that anyone who has it, even if they are asymptomatic, can pass it on to others,” he said.

Caudle says this is a particularly important point for twenty-somethings who’ve ignored calls for social distancing.

“Younger people tend to do better than older people, but younger people can still get it. And the importance of that is that if young people get it, they may not be hurting. It may not affect their life like it would an 80-year-old, but they can spread it to an 80-year-old whose life would be impacted drastically,” she said. “When you see people partying on spring break at beaches in Florida, that’s not cool. It’s selfish, and it’s not helpful to the community at large because these young people can spread it.”

Black people can’t get it. FALSE

When Caudle first heard the “black people can’t get coronavirus” rumor in a beauty salon, she thought it was just a silly joke. But then, she began to hear the rumor everywhere, in conversations with family and friends, online and all over social media. As a family doctor, it frustrated her so much that she began publishing daily videos on her Facebook page to dispel this and other myths about the virus.

“One of my biggest concerns with this myth is that if we, as black people, are thinking that we can’t get coronavirus, it may make us take fewer precautions. We may not take seriously the importance of hand hygiene, staying away from people who are sick, or staying home and staying away from groups seriously and that would lead to further injury and illness to black people and to others because coronavirus is highly contagious,” she said. “It was particularly important for me to dispel this myth because it’s not just a myth, it’s a myth with potentially deadly consequences.”

Caudle believes the myth arose from a longstanding distrust of medicine in the black community — an issue that she says, also should not be minimized or ignored.

“The historical relationship that black people have had with health care and health care systems is complicated at best, from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to so many other things in history that have made our relationship with health care very complicated and often contentious. I recognize that. I respect that, and I acknowledge that because it’s very, very real,” she said. “As a black woman, I get why sometimes people are cautious or concerned or disbelieving. So, I don’t criticize that. However, we need to pay attention to facts and get the best evidence that we can and follow that guidance to keep us and everyone else safe.”

Don’t want to take Caudle’s word for it? Just ask the dozens of black NBA players who’ve tested positive for the virus, or heartthrob actor, Idris Elba, who took to social media this week to dispel the myth after he and his wife learned, they too, have coronavirus.

“You have to be as vigilant as every other race,” Elba said in a live video on Twitter this week. “This virus does not discriminate.”

The process for testing is too difficult or scary. FALSE

It’s no secret that hospitals across the U.S. have struggled to obtain coronavirus test kits and find places to administer them safely, but the process of coronavirus testing itself is simple.

According to Sachinwalla, the process of testing involves having a healthcare worker use a cotton swab to take a sample of the back of the nose to check for the virus. It is not painful but can be briefly uncomfortable and some patients might cough during or after the test. All in all, the test usually takes less than 30 seconds to complete.

It’s not even as deadly as the flu. SOMEWHAT TRUE, BUT…

The CDC estimates as many as 55,000 Americans may die from influenza by the end of this flu season. So yes, even conservative estimates make it appear that the flu is more deadly than the coronavirus.

However, COVID-19 has proven to be much more contagious than the flu primarily because people who have coronavirus can go up to 14 days with no symptoms, making it highly likely that they will unknowingly pass the virus on to many others before being diagnosed. Symptoms for the flu usually appear within two days of initial infection, leaving a much shorter window for the virus to be passed along.

It’s also worth noting that due to the rapid spread and lack of COVID-19 tests, the mortality rate for coronavirus could be grossly undercounted.

“The exact mortality rate from this illness is still being worked out. Initial reports on mortality rates only used laboratory-confirmed infected patients and due to testing limitations, only the sickest patients were initially tested,” Sachinwalla said. “As our testing capabilities increase and we hopefully can test more patients we should get a more accurate measurement of the overall mortality rate.”

The virus doesn’t stay alive on surfaces, only on hands. And it’s not airborne. FALSE

A study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a new version of COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is more resilient than ever. But it may survive longer on certain surfaces.

The study found the new coronavirus could survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours. Fortunately, for Amazon shoppers and postal workers, the study showed the coronavirus rarely survived longer than 24 hours on cardboard; and for those afraid of catching the virus via pennies, the study found coronavirus did not survive beyond eight hours on copper surfaces.

“It can still be spread from surfaces for hours and maybe even days,” Joshi said.

But can you catch it by breathing it in? Possibly.

The same study found coronavirus particles could stay suspended in the air for up to 30 minutes before landing on a surface, meaning you could become infected if you encounter coronavirus particles that linger in the air.

Antibiotics, vitamins, and at-home remedies can kill the virus. Particular climates kill the virus. FALSE

One thing that all the experts agree on: Antibiotics do not kill COVID-19. Coronavirus is a virus, not bacteria. Antibiotics stop infections caused by bacteria.

But what about other homemade cures that people are touting as effective against the disease? People have claimed everything from eating certain foods or gargling salt water, to drinking gallons of water at a time or rubbing yourself down with alcohol can serve as a cure for the virus.

Caudle says, proceed with caution.

“I think it’s really important that we eat a balanced diet on any given day, and for some people, taking a multivitamin for optimal health may be recommended,” she explained. “However, there’s no evidence to support taking a specific vitamin or supplement like garlic, vitamin C or elderberry specifically to cure, prevent or treat coronavirus.”

Similarly, the idea that warm weather or cold weather can kill the virus, has also been proven false. According to the WHO, the virus can be transmitted in any climate.

So, for now, it might be best to just stick to washing your hands.