Latest Coronavirus Myths: Malaria Drug, Face Masks, Mail Safety

In these frightening times, when we’re increasingly touched by someone who has been sickened by or died from the new coronavirus illness, myths, hoaxes and outright lies are dangerous.

Many of these hoaxes and rumors start on social media and have just enough truth that they may appear plausible in an atmosphere of confusion and fear in the United States, which currently leads the world in the number of cases of the new virus.

Patch took a look at some of the more-pervasive myths. This list will be periodically updated as more information becomes known.

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CLAIM: The drug hydroxychloroquine — long used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis — is an effective treatment against COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. President Donald Trump said in a news briefing April 4 that the government is stockpiling millions of doses of the drug to make it available to patients. “What do you have to lose?” he said. “Take it. I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice, and it’s their doctor’s choice, or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine — try it, if you’d like.” He repeated the claim at a news briefing April 5.

UNVERIFIED: The drug, which can have serious side effects, has not been approved for treating COVID-19, and the president’s own health experts say more studies are needed to know if it’s safe and effective to use. A small number of studies have shown hydroxychloroquine may help prevent the coronavirus from entering cells and possibly help clear the virus sooner, and doctors already can prescribe it under a method known as off-label prescribing.

The Food and Drug Administration has allowed the drugs into the national stockpile as an option for doctors to consider for patients who cannot get into one of the studies. But it emphasized that the drugs shouldn’t be used without a prescription and the drugs being explored “are not FDA-approved for treatment of COVID-19.”

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, says Americans shouldn’t consider hydroxychloroquine a “knockout drug.” He said definitive studies are needed to determine if any intervention, whether with this drug or others, still need to be done to determine safety and efficacy.

In a joint statement, the American Medical Association, the American Pharmacists Association and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists had previously cautioned against “prophylactically prescribing medications currently identified as potential treatments for COVID-19.”

CLAIM: All Americans should wear non-surgical face masks, as well as practice social distancing.

TRUE: On April 3, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all Americans wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as in grocery stores or pharmacies — especially in areas with significant community-based spread of the illness. Previously, the agency had said face masks wouldn’t protect against a coronavirus infection.

The CDD pointed to recent studies showing a significant number of people infected with the coronavirus lack symptoms and those who eventually develop COVID-19 can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms.

“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” the CDC said, adding “it is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus.”

Trump said the face mask guidance is voluntary and that he doesn’t plan to wear a mask.

CLAIM: Items shipped through the mail or from overseas can spread the coronavirus.

MOST LIKELY FALSE: The World Health Organization is continuing studies to learn more about how the virus infects people. But it says the chances of becoming infected from a commercial package from China, the original epicenter of the virus, are low because it has traveled over several days and has been exposed to different temperatures and conditions during transit.

Researchers are studying the new coronavirus to learn more about how it infects people.

The CDC said on its website: “In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.”

CLAIM: The coronavirus can spread through food.

MOST LIKELY FALSE: The CDC says “it seems unlikely” that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food but that said additional investigation is needed.

The Food and Drug Administration says there is currently no evidence to support the idea of transmission of the coronavirus associated with food. But the FDA says that for general food safety, it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before handling food.

In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated or frozen temperatures, the FDA says.

You should always handle and prepare food safely, including keeping raw meat separate from other foods, refrigerating perishable foods, and cooking meat to the right temperature to kill harmful germs. See CDC’s Food Safety site for more information.

CLAIM: Although people age 60 and older appear to be most vulnerable to the coronavirus illness and most often show symptoms, younger people who are asymptomatic can unknowingly carry and spread the virus and should also follow the government’s social distancing recommendations.

TRUE: Researchers don’t know if some people are more immune than others, but they do know no one is completely immune. The coronavirus is still in its early stages in the United States, but what public health officials know so far is that more than a third of patients who have been hospitalized so far are between the ages of 20 and 54.

A CDC report says that Americans of all ages are being seriously sickened by the coronavirus. It’s true that COVID-19 patients in their 70s, 80s and 90s have the most risk of dying, but the report showed 38 percent of the 508 patients hospitalized have been between the ages of 20 and 54. And nearly half of the 121 patients who were admitted to intensive care units were adults under 65.

Public health officials have implored millennials and others who aren’t in a high-risk group to behave as if they are. White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx says millennials can play a key role in promoting the urgency of the situation to their peers.

CLAIM: The coronavirus remains alive for hours or days on plastic and metal surfaces.

LIKELY TRUE: A team of researchers from the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University of California-Los Angeles and Princeton University found the coronavirus can last for hours or days on some surfaces. The study found the virus lasts:

The researchers said their findings show that secondary cases of the new coronavirus — those not associated with travel — occur in communities rather than health care settings, although they emphasized health care facilities are vulnerable to the spread of the virus and that the stability of the virus in aerosols contributes to its spread.

CLAIM: Pets can get the virus from humans.

POSSIBLY TRUE: The CDC had previously said there was no evidence companion animals can spread COVID-19 or might be a source of the U.S. infections, but that pets have other types of coronaviruses that can make them sick — but not the people around them — and are not related to the current pandemic.

A Bronx Zoo tiger tested positive for the new coronavirus in early April in what is believed to be the first known infection in an animal in the United States or a tiger anywhere. Another six tigers at the zoo have fallen ill and are believed to have been infected by a zoo employee who wasn’t yet showing symptoms of the illness.

Both the CDC and American Veterinary Medical Association have been recommending that out of an abundance of caution, people who are sick with the coronavirus illness should limit their contact with animals — advice the veterinary group reiterated after the tiger tested positive.

There have been a handful of reports outside of the United States that pet dogs or cats have become infected after coming in close contact with people who were contagious. After a dog in Hong Kong tested positive for a low level of the pathogen, agriculture authorities concluded that pet dogs and cats couldn’t pass the virus to human beings but could test positive if exposed by their owners.

CLAIM: Home remedies such as drinking plenty of water and gargling with vinegar and warm salt water will stop the virus from traveling into the lungs, and rinsing the nose with saline will speed recovery.

FALSE: The World Health Organization addressed this and other false coronavirus medical advice circulated on social media and says there’s no evidence saline nasal rinses offer any protection against a coronavirus infection.

“There is some limited evidence that regularly rinsing the nose with saline can help people recover more quickly from the common cold,” the agency said. “However, regularly rinsing the nose has not been shown to prevent respiratory infections.”

It’s true that increasing water intake during respiratory and other illnesses is important to prevent dehydration, and it’s no different with COVID-19. Gargling with home remedies has no effect on the illness, according to the fact-checking site Snopes.

CLAIM: If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds without coughing, you haven’t been infected by the coronavirus

FALSE: Posts that circulated on social media and in emails claiming the reliability of the breath test were falsely attributed to a member of the Stanford Health Care board, but Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Kim told CNN the post contains dangerous, inaccurate information.

CLAIM: Frequently washing hands under hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds — taking care to wash between fingers, around cuticles and under fingernails — offers the best protection against the new coronavirus, but when that’s impossible to do, a 60 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer is almost as effective.

TRUE: That’s true, though it’s not the only protection against the new coronavirus. The CDC’s recommendation is to avoid being exposed in the first place, by limiting contact with others and meeting socially in groups of 10 or fewer; maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between people; coughing and sneezing into a tissue and immediately disposing of it or, as an alternative, sneezing into your elbow; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; and regularly wiping down frequently touched surfaces — for example, countertops, door handles, light switches, television remotes, toilet and bathroom fixtures.

CLAIM: In various iterations of this, text messages people are forwarding to their friends, families and business networks spread information supposedly from someone who just left a two-hour briefing with the CIA and highly placed government officials. The message warns people to stock up on everything they’ll need for two weeks because a national lockdown or quarantine is coming from President Donald Trump within 48 to 72 hours.

FALSE: This is false, for now. The president has resisted a national shelter-in-place order, leaving those decisions to governors.

The White House’s National Security Council also false rumor of a national lockdown rumor was debunked in March by the White House’s National Security Council, which said in a tweet: “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.”

What’s true is that when Trump declared a national emergency, he invoked the Stafford Act, usually used to trigger federal aid to states in natural disasters and other times of crisis.

Importantly, the Stafford Act does not give the federal government the authority to impose mandatory quarantines. The administration also closed the nation’s borders to people traveling from high-risk countries, except for U.S. citizens coming home, but that wasn’t a lockdown. Neither is the urgent recommendation by public health officials that Americans hunker down in their homes until April 30.

CLAIM: Residents of states where National Guard troops have been deployed to assist after shelter-in-place orders were issued are living under martial law.

FALSE: That claim is Part 2 of the hoax detailed above. It’s true National Guard troops have been deployed to some areas with shelter-in-place orders; the soldiers aren’t acting as police enforcing civil law, though. Rather, their duties include providing humanitarian aid, closing critical service gaps and building temporary hospitals.

Martial law is a rarely used legal power that isn’t specifically written into the Constitution, and it’s been contentious in the handful of times the military has been used to enforce the law because police and courts are for some reason unable to function.

CLAIM: America will run out of toilet paper before the coronavirus pandemic is over.

FALSE: Some people are panic-buying toilet paper, and that’s what’s contributing to empty toilet paper aisles in the United States and around the world. U.S. toilet paper makers are ramping up production to ensure an ample supply of toilet paper.

The panic buying contributed to a 60 percent increase in toilet paper sales in the week ending March 7, according to Nielsen data, and that has made TP more expensive.

CLAIM: The spread of the coronavirus from China to the rest of the world has been accompanied by a rise in racism and xenophobia against Asians.

TRUE: Asian Americans Advancing Justice and other groups report dozens of incidents of hate speech and physical attacks directed at Asians, and calls them reminiscent of the 1800s pejorative “yellow peril,” pinned on Chinese Americans, suggesting they represented an existential threat to the Western world.

John C. Yang, who heads the group, told The Associated Press that “words matter” and “in reality, Chinese are not more genetically prone to transmit the virus. What we all need to do is focus on our public health.”

When the World Health Organization named the illness caused by coronavirus COVID-19, officials said they were guarding against stigmatism and warned against the potential for racial profiling. Trump has been criticized for repeated references to the “Chinese virus” in news conferences.

“This is a time for solidarity, this is a time for facts, this is a time to move forward together, to fight this virus together. There is no blame in this,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program. “All we need now is to identify the things we need to do to move forward quickly, with speed and to avoid any indication of ethnic or other associations with this virus.”

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