Long before mass restaurant closures and event cancellations, the World Health Organization described an ongoing "infodemic" about COVID-19, citing a massive amount of both true and false information online that "makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
We spoke with local health experts to get to the bottom of some of the biggest questions related to the ongoing pandemic: How does it differ from the flu? Can ibuprofen worsen symptoms? How long does the virus remain on surfaces? Is Tucson particularly susceptible?
“The novel coronavirus strain is just that: a new strain of coronavirus,” said Aaron Pacheco of the Pima County Health Department. "There are lots of coronaviruses, most notably the virus that causes the common cold. So coronaviruses are not new, but this strain is new, and that’s why it’s so different than what we’re used to.”
While often compared to the flu, COVID-19 differs in a few key ways. Perhaps most importantly: there is no current vaccine or antiviral treatment against COVID-19 like the ones developed each year for flu season.
“There are a couple of ways that it differs,” Pacheco said. “With flu symptoms, you’ll generally see a lot more muscle aches, fatigue, weakness, congestion. The similarities are the fever and cough. The big issue with this novel strain of coronavirus is the difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. That’s the main concern.”
According to the CDC, COVID-19 symptoms typically occur two to 14 days after exposure, however, some cases of the virus are entirely asymptomatic. Practices to avoid infection include social distancing (of at least six feet), washing your hands, avoiding unnecessary trips and not touching your face.
According to Kelly Reynolds, professor at the University of Arizona's College of Public Health, the size of a city impacted by the virus isn’t as important as the behavior of the city’s residents. That aside, Reynolds says Tucson may in fact be better suited against the contagion due to our warmer and drier climate.
“One thing we know about winter viruses in general is that they peak in winter and spring months, and around summer they start to die off. So we do think that dryer climates and warmer climates make it less feasible for viruses to survive, and in time you’ll have people expanding to outdoor environments where they’ll have less of a chance of coming into contact with an infected person,” Reynolds said.
Much of our current knowledge about COVID-19 (also known as SARS-2) is based on previous genetically similar coronaviruses. However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 17 compared the amount of time COVID-19 can survive in the air and on surfaces to a previous strain of SARS.
The report, titled "Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1" found that COVID-19 can survive four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces. The study also found that the virus can be detected in the air up to three hours after a sneeze or cough, but this was in a controlled laboratory environment.
“It’s definitely plausible that transmission can happen from those surfaces because the virus can survive for longer periods of time,” Reynolds said.
As the virus seems to be more contagious than the flu, health organizations are recommending social distancing, particularly of more than six feet from others to avoid droplets from coughs or sneezes. However, some new research from China indicates the virus can spread from one person to another from up to 12 feet under certain conditions.
One of the latest pieces of information spread about COVID-19 is that taking ibuprofen can cause adverse reactions. This was spread by the French Health Minister Olivier Veran online when he said that these anti-inflammatory painkillers could aggravate coronavirus. However, several health officials have refuted this claim.
“I can’t find any scientific study that validates that claim, so that’s very anecdotal information and probably too early to say if that is valid,” Reynolds said. “I can’t find any papers that support it.”
Reynolds says that viruses such as this are simply part of nature’s course, and in a way, a positive outcome of COVID-19 is the increased awareness of these kinds of viruses. She says these kinds of viruses will continue to come due to mutation, and this might even cause us to be better prepared for a worse pandemic in the future.
“I’m an environmental microbiologist, so I think these precautions are long overdue,” Reynolds said. “We lose a lot of people to the flu every year, and so what we’re doing with disinfecting surfaces and improving our hand hygiene and raising awareness overall about how respiratory viruses are spread is important… What we’re seeing is that the steps we’re taking against SARS-2 is having a positive impact against illnesses relating to influenza as well. So I think we should have been taking these precautions earlier for other viruses.”
As many of the earliest COVID-19 cases can be traced back to a market in Wuhan, China which sold live animals, the virus is thought to have a "zoonotic" origin. And that should not come as much of a surprise, because according to the CDC, three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.
“For right now, it’s such an unknown in terms of how this virus is going to spread and the impact it’s going to have on morbidity and illness rates that I think we’re taking an abundance of precautions and only time will tell if it was necessary or not,” Reynolds said.
For more information, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.