From Mail to Uncle Maskless to Motrin: Watching Science Bust Some Myths

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Photo by Alejandro Barba on Unsplash

Remember how frightened we were in March? We had no confidence that anything could stop Covid’s seemingly inexorable march towards us. All we could do was lock ourselves in the house, huddle with our children, abandon our workplaces and schools, and cancel all the rituals in our lives.

We didn’t even know if masks would help. We felt nothing in our world was safe. We had no data. All we had was the internet and 24 hour news cycle spreading anecdotes and misinformation which gave rise to myths which ruled our reality for months.

This happens in every epidemic: myths balloon up out of terror — until they get punctured by science.

Fortunately, science marches on. Since March, there have been literally hundreds of studies looking at transmission and their results can now be used to guide our decision-making with real evidence and real data. So let’s do some March Myth-Busting!

Myth One: Your mail and groceries are dangerous as the virus can live on them for days. Reality: we are not seeing people catch Covid from materials.

How did this all start? Early on in the pandemic, scientists found pieces of virus (mRNA) on surfaces and it scared everybody half to death. But studies showing WHOLE CONTAGIOUS VIRUSES ALIVE AND TRANSMISSIBLE on materials are rare, and now after all these months there are still no documented studies of people getting Covid from surfaces.

Plus the idea of dangerous groceries becomes moot if I just wash my hands after I put away the baked beans.

Lesson Learned: Wash Hands, not Cans.

Myth Two: People walking or biking by you are potentially dangerous. Reality: very little transmission takes place outdoors. Very little transmission happens in brief encounters. Very little transmission happens if you’re wearing a mask. Hence: very very unlikely a passing person is a threat.

Lesson Learned: Walk all you want and MaskUp!

Myth Three: Health care workers are at high risk to spread Covid. Reality: in multiple studies, health care workers with good PPE actually have LOWER antibody levels and rates of Covid infection than people in the community.

The most risky people in your life are not your friends the heroic health care workers.

The riskiest person of all is your Uncle Maskless who for whatever reason refuses to wear a mask.

The second most risky is the person who has regressed back to a normal life all the while claiming they’re staying safe.

It’s your Aunt Petunia saying, “I just went to the one bridal shower with 75 people in Applebees’ back room but it was only for three hours. And of course we didn’t wear masks, we’re family! Plus everybody’s being safe. And I left early! But sure I had to stop and tell Cousin-Connie-with-the-chronic-cough-from-the-COPD-at-the-nursing-home about the shower. But then I only had to stop at the one store and well yeah it was Total Wine but just the one bottle of Chardonnay, well, yes the gallon-sized bottle, and yes it took an hour since the line went out the door but I’m totally staying safe!”

Lesson Learned: The Aunt Petunias of the world need to stop saying “I’m being safe” when they’re categorically not. The virus hasn’t changed. We still need to stay outside, stay masked, stay in small groups and maybe it’s time to think about maybe a little less Chardonnay?

And Uncle Maskless, the same goes for you but double.

Myth Four: Outdoor BLM protests caused huge spikes. Reality: we did not see surges of cases after protests where people were mostly masked. Being outdoors is a huge protection. Being masked is a huge huge protection.

Lessons Learned: Protest Outside and MaskUp!

Myth Five: Playground equipment is an unacceptable danger zone for kids. Reality: could an unmasked infected kid sneeze Covid onto the slide and could the viruses live long enough in the broiling heat for your kid to run their hand over it a couple minutes later and get it behind their mask? Theoretically. In real life, we haven’t seen this happen. And again, hand washing handles it (as does masking the kids).

Lesson Learned for the kids of the world: WashUp!

Myth Six: Your oxygen levels go down in a mask (or your CO2 goes dangerously high). Never. Tell this to your local surgeon who operates ten hours a day and watch her eyes roll back in her head while she laughs out loud.

Lesson Learned: You can absolutely physiologically breathe just fine in a mask.

Myth Seven: You shouldn’t take Motrin or ibuprofen if you have Covid. Reality: this was an early statement by a single person at a press conference that got incredible traction but was never shown to be true.

Lesson Learned: don’t get your science at a press conference.

Myth Eight: The virus is going to mutate to become even worse. Reality: viruses can mutate pretty much every time they divide. Over history, viral mutations tend to be to become more TRANSMISSIBLE but not more FATAL — after all, it doesn’t make sense for a virus to mutate to something that kills all its hosts. That may be happening with Covid.

Lesson Learned: MaskUp!

Myth Nine: Getting reinfected is a real risk. Reality: this is not unexpected; it happens with other coronaviruses. It has happened with Covid. So far it’s rare. (Three documented cases in 33 million.). Scientists are keeping an eye on it.

Lesson Learned: MaskUp!

Myth Ten: We will all be able to travel/go to school/visit grandma/belly up to the bar the day the vaccine is approved. Reality: it’s going to take months or a year or more for the vaccine(s) to be given to enough people to have a major impact on our day-to-day lives.

Lesson Learned: BuckleUp!

That’s enough myth-busting for today. But stay tuned for future myth-busting: since every day there’s more and better studies, we can expect in another six months that we’ll have another group of at least Ten Myths to Bust. This is what happens when science marches on.

And in the meantime remember the number one lesson learned in all this: MaskUp! And it probably really is time to talk to Aunt Petunia about the Chardonnay.

Written by

Radiation Oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital/Emerson Hospital. Writer. Teller. Mom. Currently Covid-Obsessed. www.DrRobin.org, @robinshome

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