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Wack: Don’t fall prey to COVID-19 rumors, disinformation

Now that the COVID-19 epidemic is well underway, it’s important to understand where to get reliable information. Unfortunately, the disinformation warfare ongoing on social media hasn’t neglected the opportunity to sow chaos with lies about where the virus came from, how to avoid getting sick, or how to get better. Our local health resources are ready for the challenge, both to care for the sick as well as to distribute information you can trust.

Hospitals and health departments in Maryland have been preparing for an epidemic like this for many years. Since the 1990s, a growing awareness of the threat of emerging infectious diseases has informed contingency planning all across the health care system. Each winter, we get a practice run with the annual flu season, which we never really know how bad it will be until it arrives. Extra staff, extra beds, extra supplies all have to be available to handle the unscheduled workload fluctuations.

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This epidemic will be considerably worse, but it’s still within the scope of what our hospitals are organized to handle. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be perfect, but we’ll get through this. Expect to see unusual and creative solutions to possible bed capacity problems, depending on how may people get sick and how fast.

In the meantime, do not fall prey to the bad information circulating on social media. For example, there is zero evidence that COVID-19 is anything other than a new, naturally evolved member of the enormous group of viruses that cause human disease. It’s not a bioweapon, or a secret plot by shadowy enemies. You can’t prevent infection with garlic, and avoiding ice in your drinks won’t help either. There is no evidence that it is temperature sensitive, so the summer won’t change the rate of spread, and drinking bleach won’t help, and will certainly hurt you. There is no secret vaccine being withheld, and there are no miracle cures being developed in secret labs to be released in coming days or weeks.

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This virus is a cold virus, spread by aerosol and contaminated contacts, which means hand washing is the best bet to avoid infection. This is not news.

The lack of widely available testing has enabled the rapid spread across the United States, which complicates containment efforts. Because of the lack of testing, we don’t even know who is contagious, which means isolation efforts are almost useless. Given how quickly it is spreading, there are almost certainly silent spreaders, people who are not sick, or only mildly so, who’ve been able to continue with daily activities unaffected. Until the federal government recovers from the debacle of bungled testing, the virus will continue spreading.

Because of the lack of reliable testing data, two things to be skeptical about for the time being: estimates of the case fatality rate, and the possibility of reinfection. Both topics generate a lot of discussion, but it’s too early, especially in the U.S., to say anything with certainty. All numbers you see in the media, even from reliable sources, are estimates. Reinfection is extremely unlikely with coronaviruses, but not impossible.

If you think you might be sick, do not just go to the emergency department or Urgent Care. Call first, use whatever telemedicine service that may be available through your health plan, or call your doctor’s office. Remember, most people only become mildly ill, especially if you are young and otherwise healthy. If you are congested and coughing, don’t go out, or if you must, wear a mask and avoid contact with other people.

The elderly, especially those with complicating medical problems, are the most at risk, and they should seek care sooner. Happily, and for unknown reasons, children seem to be relatively unaffected by the virus, at least so far.

Because there is no vaccine or specific medicine yet, treatment for most people is supportive: fluids, rest, Tylenol, Motrin, and time. For the unlucky few who develop more serious pneumonia, they may require more intensive care: supplemental oxygen, breathing treatments, and in the worst cases, mechanical ventilation.

Our best sources of information are the Carroll County Health Department and the state of Maryland. We’ll need to cooperate with health care officials to ensure the system isn’t overwhelmed with people who are scared, but not that sick.

Pay attention, and stay informed, but don’t fall prey to rumors and disinformation. If you read it on Facebook or Twitter, there’s a very good chance it’s wrong, especially if it alarms or frightens you. Consider the source, and then double check it. This epidemic is only novel in the scope and rapidity of spread, but the underlying problem of viral respiratory illness is one we’ve dealt with many times before. Don’t let rumors and hysteria make things worse than they should be.

Robert Wack M.D. is a pediatrician and lives in Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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