COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has spread faster than global health officials have been able to contain. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned this week that the American public should prepare for outbreaks across the US.
Global health officials have been struggling to both stop the spread of COVID-19 and the spread of shoddy data and misinformation about the disease. Fake information about the coronavirus has led to riots in Ukraine, widespread misinformation in India, and many, many hoaxes.
With the threat of an outbreak looming, BuzzFeed News asked several public health experts to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the coronavirus — and explain why it’s so important to wash your hands.
Can face masks protect you from the coronavirus?
Whenever there are outbreaks of respiratory illnesses, one of the first things you see is more people wearing face masks. As more coronavirus cases are reported, demand for face masks will increase — as will their prices (there’s already been some serious price gouging going on on Amazon).
But do face masks actually protect you?
“The fact is, your typical surgical mask is not going to protect or prevent infection,” Erin Sorrell, a Center for Global Health Science and Security member and assistant research professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University, told BuzzFeed News.
Sorrell said there’s no reason to use a surgical mask if you’re healthy and not infected.
“The virus itself is so small that it can penetrate the mask,” she said. “So it literally does nothing for you.”
The only reason to wear a surgical mask is if you’re already infected with the virus and are quarantined, according to Sorrell. Hence, if you’re staying at home from work or from school, and you’re trying not to infect your family members, you should wear a mask.
Stanley Perlman, microbiology and immunology professor at Carver College of Medicine at University of Iowa and a longtime coronavirus researcher, said surgical masks aren’t as good as keeping virus out because they have larger pores.
“They also allow virus around the sides because they don’t form a great seal around your face,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Surgical masks are flat and pleated, but one you’ll see people wearing often is the N95 respirator, too.
The N95 masks can block up to 95% of the airborne particles, but considering the current risk of exposure in the US and the high demand for these masks, Sorrell said healthcare workers should have priority over using them.
“It’s important that those masks go to the workforce that will be responding to potential cases,” she said.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security who works on emerging infectious disease and pandemic preparedness, told BuzzFeed News that face masks are most effective in healthcare settings because those officials are in closest contact with patients, and they’re trained to wear them properly.
“Healthcare providers often wear face masks because those face masks can block some of those large droplets … from your sneezes and coughs, from hitting your mouth,” he said.
The general public, he added, “often don’t use them properly — stick their fingers underneath them, don’t include their nose in the mask, and don’t wear them meticulously.”
Sorrell also pointed out that the N95 mask “has to sit close to your face in order to [work as intended].”
“So a lot of times people purchase them, they don’t fit correctly, and there’s a false sense of security on the effectiveness of the mask,” she said.
Can hand sanitizers prevent you from getting the coronavirus?
While it has not been proven that hand sanitizers are a guaranteed method to prevent infection, it is a good practice to keep your hands clean to prevent the spread of germs.
“Anything that’s equivalent to washing your hands is probably useful,” Perlman said. “Hand sanitizers have agents in them that are antiviral, that kill viruses.”
Adalja said alcohol-based hand sanitizers are “expected to be effective” against the coronavirus.
“Any kind of skin product can increase allergies,” he cautioned. “But we know that coronavirus doesn’t infect you through your skin, it infects you through your respiratory tract.”
How about washing your hands?
WHO officials emphasized at a Thursday press conference that the best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
“You tend to touch what we consider mucosal surfaces, your nose, your eyes, your mouth and that is an entryway for the virus to infect,” Sorrell explained. “If you [are] touching surfaces that can be contaminated, or close to someone who has coughed or sneezed, and then you touch your nose or your mouth, you’re ultimately bringing that virus closer to contact with parts of your body that can get infected.”
Sorrell said washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, which is also a recommendation for preventing common colds and influenza, is crucial.
“The virus is sensitive to detergents, meaning soap will inactivate the virus,” she said.
The most important ways to protect yourself from the coronavirus right now, Sorrell said, is washing your hands properly and being aware of people around you who are coughing or sneezing, as you would during flu season.
Does having facial hair make someone more likely to get infected?
No, the mere fact that you have facial hair does not make you more likely to contract the coronavirus. But how much facial hair you have — or what style you’re wearing — can make it harder to wear a mask properly.
“Obviously if you have a hillbilly beard you can’t fit a mask on it,” said Adalja.
The Centers for Disease Control released an infographic this week showing which styles are less suitable for face masks, but they weren’t necessarily saying you have to get rid of your facial hair. (Remember, what we said about masks above)
Can pets spread the virus?
Coronaviruses are common in almost every species of animal. What’s different about this new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is that it seems to have recently adapted to humans. However, it’s still not clear which species was the source.
So does this mean you need to worry about your pets getting sick and infecting you?
So far, Perlman said, “there’s no evidence” that your pup can infect you with the new coronavirus.
The World Health Organization says there’s no evidence that companion animals like dogs and cats can be infected with the virus.
“However, it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets,” the WHO warns. “This protects you against various common bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella that can pass between pets and humans.”
Is it “safe” to go to Chinatown or a Chinese restaurant?
The panic caused by global epidemics often trigger racial or xenophobic tendencies. In the US and many other countries, it has manifested as racist violence and discrimination against people from Chinese and Asian backgrounds.
But this fear is totally unfounded.
“It’s stupid. It’s highly irrational, it’s not justified by science. It’s an emotional reaction that has no basis in fact,” Adalja said.
When people stigmatize people and areas that have nothing to do with the outbreak, Adalja said, “it’s making responding to this outbreak worse.”
“If they’re going to not go to Chinatown,” he added, “they should stop going to Little Italy too.”