Written by Steven Burns
From his column To Your Health
I am writing this article in the middle of April. As with most others right now, we are sheltering in place, except that I am sitting in my office where I conduct most of my patient visits by phone or video conference.
By the time you read this, I hope the social isolation that has been so important in reducing the spread of this pandemic will be lifted, and maybe we will even be worshiping in a church building, but we still don’t know for sure. There are many unknowns.
COVID-19 has proven to be more dangerous than we had feared. With a lot of testing worldwide, the mortality rate (according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard) is 6%. In March, we hoped it would be 1% when all cases were identified. But in Italy, nearly 13% of those infected have died. In the United States, deaths are 4% of infections, ranging from 5% in New York State, to .4% in Wyoming.
Things that Don’t Work
As with many diseases for which we have no cure, charlatans and trolls have come out of the woodwork. It has been hard to keep track of the foolish, false, and outlandish claims made about this virus. Offering cures from vitamins and ultraviolet light, to heat and Listerine, the claims have cascaded through social media. Unfounded claims can cause harm if people follow such recommendations instead of doing the right things. With refutations in italics, here are a few of the more ridiculous assertions:
COVID-19 is a DNA virus with a lipid coating, making it susceptible to being dissolved by using soap. In fact, COVID-19 is an RNA virus, and virus capsules are not dissolved by soap. Soap does, however, wash the virus off your skin.
Zinc can protect against the virus. The studies about zinc and coronaviruses focused on “colds,” and results did not clearly show benefit. In a test tube, zinc blocked SARS, a similar virus, from replicating, but test tubes are not humans. Current research does not show zinc helps.
Vitamin D prevents the virus. There is weak evidence that vitamin D deficiency can make a person more susceptible to viral infections. However, there is no effect if you are not deficient, and no proof at all that Vitamin D supplements will prevent infection.
Holding your breath for 10 seconds proves you don’t have the virus. It’s hard to come up with anything more foolish. Typical respiratory rates run from 12 to 16 breaths per minute, so if you hold for 10 seconds, that is two breaths. Not much of a breath-holding exercise, and even most people with pneumonia would be able to do this.
Drinking warm water every 20 minutes keeps your throat hydrated, so the virus can’t invade the membranes. This statement is false and silly.
Sunlight and UV light kill the virus. Various microorganisms and viruses are killed by heat and ultraviolet light, but this effect happens at levels much greater than in sunlight or in heat tolerated by humans.
Several medications have been touted to treat this virus. The two that have received the most press are chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. Although a number of hospitals worldwide have begun using hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine for patients with COVID-19, the FDA has not approved these for the treatment of the illness. At the time of this writing, there are no studies showing clear benefit from these antimalarial drugs, but it is notable (and rarely mentioned) that these were tested with SARS in the early 2000s and no benefit was found.
Beware of Sharing Suspect Information
When you see an exciting article that suggests new methods of diagnosis or treatment, please do not automatically pass them along to others. You may be promoting bad information that could cause someone to avoid effective methods of treatment or even suffer injury.
Avoiding the Virus
So what are the effective methods for avoiding COVID-19? First, social distancing and quarantine. This was proven 100 years ago in the Spanish flu epidemic. Communities that adopted social distancing had far fewer deaths than communities that did not. Second, avoid droplet contamination, caused by coughing or sneezing. This means staying away from places where that can happen, such as the grocery store, church, family gatherings, etc. When it is necessary to go to a store, you should have a list, shop quickly, and wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose. I see many pictures of people wearing masks that cover only their mouth (“My glasses fog up!”), and that will not prevent contamination. So get in and out quickly, stay at least 6 feet away from others, and wear a mask properly. Third, masks are not perfect, so don’t rely on masks alone to protect you. Even N-95 masks will not protect you if you get droplets in your eyes from other people, or if you touch your face with contaminated hands.
For More Information
For further information about the virus, the medical and governmental responses, and treatments, I would recommend watching this web-conference with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Many of you may know that he is a committed, evangelical Christian, whose faith informs his science. Also, you may learn more about how to protect yourself and what to do if you become sick at the Centers for Disease Control website.
In the long run, life will resume. Some changes may be permanent. We may also awaken to the reality of how many people die every year from influenza and start getting annual flu shots. Maybe we will become more aware that we should “shelter in place” whenever we feel ill, rather than going to work, church, or a ballgame, where we can sicken others.
Certainly, we know God has us in His hand, but I think He expects us to care for ourselves and each other. Jesus, when He healed the man blind from birth, required him to wash in the pool of Siloam in order to see. He required the 10 lepers to show themselves to the priest. He required the paralytic to take up his bed and walk. God expects us to take the actions He requests and to use our God-given knowledge to protect ourselves and others.
Dr. Steven Burns is board-certified in family medicine and has been in practice for more than 30 years.