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COVID-19 in (and not in) the news

Science Communication Institute > All > Interest > COVID-19 in (and not in) the news

News about the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is as widespread and fast-moving as the virus itself. It can be hard to absorb, plus COVID-19 news is often conveyed with a sense of urgency that can make us panic about making the right choices—too much information, not enough time. This is all new territory for modern science communication. For the most part, though, it’s been so far so good. Many federal agencies and hospital networks have excellent COVID-19 information posted on their websites—facts, precautions, frequently asked questions, and more. Make sure to check these sources for reliable and comprehensive information over the coming months. Even though these reliable sources have been doing a good job, there is still plenty of misinformation coming from unreliable sources (including some popular news feeds and networks).

In the meantime, here are five key COVID-19 related information items that haven’t been well enough understood to-date:

  1. Stay put—this means you. Health officials around the world are still trying to figure out exactly how COVID-19 spreads. The latest bulletin from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that having close contact with someone who has symptoms is the main way—not through the air or through contaminated surfaces (see the CDC’s coronavirus resource page at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV for more information). Therefore, social distancing is the most powerful virus fighting weapon we have in our current arsenal. The better we get at distancing—which may be a fact of life until a vaccine is developed—the fewer people will die and the shorter and less damaging these periodic shutdowns will be to our lives and livelihoods.
  2. If you can’t find hand sanitizer in the store, make your own! The key is to create a solution that’s at least 60% alcohol. You can start with either isopropyl alcohol (“rubbing alcohol”) or ethyl alcohol (the kind we drink; grain alcohol is even better—it’s the purified form of ethyl alcohol). Mix this with a little bit of purified water and aloe vera gel to make a spreadable solution (about 7 parts alcohol to 3 parts gel/water)—even add a few drops of your favorite lavender fragrance. Let your mixture sit for a few days before using it to make sure any contaminants introduced during the mixing process are killed off. Or, just use the alcohol it straight from the bottle and then apply lotion so your hands won’t dry out. You can find lots of recipes for this online. (Note: Your vodka or whiskey won’t do—they don’t contain enough alcohol.)
  3. Make your own disinfecting wipes! Here again, you can find lots of recipes online. The simplest one is just a Tupperware container filled with paper towels and bleach. That’s about it. Drain off the excess solution so you’re not dripping bleach on your shoes and clothes. Your bleach solution should be 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) bleach per gallon of water, or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Bleach is very hard on hands and isn’t safe for all surfaces, so make sure to follow the instructions on the bottle (like wearing protective gloves). If you want, you can use alcohol or other EPA-registered disinfectants instead (listed at bit.ly/2Urymhu). Note that color safe bleach, vinegar, baking soda, tea tree oil, and regular Windex ammonia spray will not kill the COVID-19 virus. If you’re caring for an infected person at home, follow the CDC’s home cleaning and disinfecting guidelines at bit.ly/3bfOny2.
  4. There’s no such thing as a do-it-yourself N95 respirator. There are two components to an effective mask: how much it filters, and how well it fits. N95 masks filter out very small airborne particles like most bacteria and viruses (virus particles can be about 250 times thinner than an average human hair) and fit tightly around the face to prevent unfiltered air from coming in through the sides of the masks. Doctors, caregivers and first responders who have close, prolonged exposure to infected patients need to wear this kind of mask for their personal protection. Surgical masks (and bandanas) are useful for filtering out large air particles like smoke and smog, and also help prevent respiratory emissions like cough droplets from spraying everywhere (which again how this virus is mainly spread), but they won’t block the virus itself. See this CDC poster for the difference between surgical masks and N95 respirators: bit.ly/39m1cpj. Now that China’s demand for N95s is slowing and manufacturing is ramping up, this item should be available in stores again soon—3M is starting to deliver large quantities to the hardest hit areas, and Hanes and other manufacturers are set to begin production. In the meantime, if you have any N95 masks around your home, please donate these to a hospital or fire station so our doctors and first responders can be protected.
  5. Keep the faith—better days are around the corner. On the treatment front, one promising lead is being followed by Seattle’s Infectious Diseases Research Institute, pitting our immune system’s natural killer cells (which we already know work well in killing tumors) against COVID-19. Early trials are underway, and could lead to a treatment by this time next year. The malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is another possible treatment approach, although there is no scientific evidence yet that it works. More evidence is needed and is being sought, not to be a scientific stick in the mud, but because around 75 percent of the time drugs that look like they work in small, early trials, end up not working at all in real life (also, in this case even small overdoses of chloroquine can be lethal—we need to proceed with caution). On the prevention front, a number of COVID-19 vaccine trials are underway, with the first launched in early March at Seattle’s Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute. There is in fact a global arms race shaping up for a COVID-19 vaccine because no country wants to be beholden to another for vaccine supply. And maybe most important of all, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the progression of this disease—for instance whether warmer, more humid weather will slow transmission (because airborne droplets don’t travel as far as in cold, dry air), or whether people who have been exposed to and overcome COVID-19 have developed anitibodies that might protect them for months or years and lessen the scale of future outbreaks (antibody tests are currently being fast tracked in several countries but are not yet widely available). So all things considered, there is hope. The key is to be patient—to continue to be vigilant for now, but also know that better days are in sight and that we won’t be with this pandemic forever.