As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, more and more misinformation is circulating around what people should and shouldn't be doing to stay safe and healthy and stop the spread of the virus. In an attempt to bust some of these myths, "medical detective" Michael Osterholm. M.D., Ph.D., recently appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience to talk about the seriousness of the situation, and the realistic steps that can be taken to minimize risk of infection.
Speaking with calm and candor, Osterholm, who is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, explains that the public need to understand that a vaccine or cure will not be immediately forthcoming, and that things will get worse before they improve.
"This is going to unfold for months to come yet," he says. "We're going to be in this for a while, this is not going to happen overnight. And I worry. I keep telling people we're handling this like it's a corona blizzard, 2 or 3 days and we're back to normal, when this is a corona winter. We're going to have the next 3 to 6 months or more... This could be 10 to 15 times worse than the worse seasonal flu you see. We conservatively estimate that this could require 48 million hospitalizations, 96 million cases actually occurring, and over 480,000 deaths over the next 3 to 7 months. This is not one to take lightly."
Addressing the notion that coronavirus is only dangerous to people who are elderly, he clarifies that far from being an "old people's disease," it is actually a case of the virus affecting people who are also subject to other risk factors and underlying health conditions: in China, being a longtime smoker was one such factor.
"There are a series of risk factors that, if they overlay on this disease, are going to have bad outcomes; we happen to be at ground zero for one of the major ones here in this country, and that's obesity," he says. "So one of the concerns we have is that we're going to see more serious, life-threatening cases in our country because of a different set of risk factors than we saw in China."
So what can people do?
Speaking about the sudden trend of people wearing masks, Osterholm specified that loose-fitting surgical masks are designed to stop saliva droplets getting out, and do nothing to prevent air getting in. "The primary mechanism for transmission is just the respiratory route, it's just breathing," he says. "Trying to stop influenza virus transmission is like trying to stop the wind; we've never had anything where we've been able to do that."
However, he adds that for people who have contracted the virus, wearing a mask may help to prevent them passing it on — but that limiting contact with others is the most practical and effective measure: "People in public spaces are getting infected, and the way you need to address that is, unfortunately if you're older, over 55, and you have some underlying health problems... then right now you don't want to be in large public spaces."
He goes on to talk about the advice everybody has been given to not touch their own face, and breaks down the logic behind it. "The thought was that there are receptors around your eye that actually, for this virus, could get into your body," he says, adding: "The data we have on this is too sparse to say that that's the case."
The other huge thing is, of course, hand washing, which can help protect people from all kinds of germs, but has no direct link to stopping the spread of coronavirus.
"I think the primary thing about hand washing is legitimate," he says. "People want to feel like they're doing something, so we tell them 'wash your hands often to prevent this disease', but I feel we're not being very honest with people. The data is really just about breathing air, which we can't stop. So keep doing the hand washing, but don't think it's going to stop the disease."
Far from further stoking the existing panic, Osterholm's frankness and insistence on swapping fear for facts is actually refreshing. As he puts it: "My job is not to scare you out of your wits, it's to scare you into your wits."
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