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From community spread to masks, Columbus experts debunk COVID-19 myths

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer - 8/19/2020

Aug. 19--As scientists continue to discover more about the coronavirus, it can be tough to keep up with the waves of new information and advice during the pandemic.

As of Aug. 17, a total of 5,092 COVID-19 cases and 109 deaths have been confirmed in Muscogee County. As the number of cases grow, it's important to evaluate disinformation that may contribute to the spread of the virus.

To help cut through the confusion, the Ledger-Enquirer asked two local experts to explain some common coronavirus misconceptions.

Dr. Gurkeerat Singh, a critical care specialist at Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital, has been directly caring for coronavirus patients in Piedmont's Intensive Care Unit since the onset of the pandemic.

Hayla Folden, Public Information Officer for District 4 Public Health, communicates public health advice and personal protection information about coronavirus to the public.

Here are common coronavirus myths debunked:

Is coronavirus a hoax?

The coronavirus is unequivocally not a hoax, Folden says.

Information overload, confusion and the popularization of conspiracy theories online have led some to question if the coronavirus is real or not.

"I tell people all the time, I certainly wouldn't work this hard just to drum up something that's not real, and I'm certain medical providers globally wouldn't do that either," Folden said.

The virus could not be more real for the people who have directly suffered from the virus.

"We know for sure that it is not a hoax, that it is real. We get a list every day of the people who have died," Folden said. "So it's really hard for us to hear people say that this is a hoax when we're seeing the names of people who have died daily."

Is the government trying to track me through contact tracing?

Some online communities have spread the false belief that contact tracing is a means for the government to track people or mine their information. Contact tracing is not a means of surveillance, Folden says. Contact tracing is a way to keep in touch with people who have been in contact with someone who has the virus, according to the World Health Organization. Contact tracers can then help patients get treatment and care for their symptoms.

Contact tracers are trying to help, but Folden says many people won't answer the phone or cooperate, which makes it more difficult to trace and reduce the spread of the virus.

"Now, they may have a driver's license, and they may have a passport. But they don't want the government to track them and we can't make them understand that we're not implanting any devices," Folden said. "We're not putting a phone trace on them. We simply want them to log into a system and self-monitor."

Does smoking protect me from the coronavirus?

No, and it can actually make you more vulnerable to the virus.

"Smoking is not going to help you," Folden says. "If anything, it's going to decrease your intake of oxygen and you're going to have a higher incidence of severe complications because you're going to have lower lung capacity. And we know that the one thing that COVID-19 causes is difficulty breathing."

Why does it matter whether I wear a mask or not?

When it comes to infectious diseases, an individual is only as safe as their community. If one person in a crowded room is wearing a mask, the unmasked people are protected from their germs, but the mask wearer is relatively unprotected.

Masks, social distancing and handwashing work best when everyone does it. There's no way to stop or slow the virus down if just one person is doing it, Folden said.

"Wearing a mask is something that, you know, I do see it as a responsibility," Singh said. "If I might not have those risk factors, someone else might have(them). So I do want to make sure that I'm not only protecting me, my family, my pet, protecting my neighbor as well from this."

Why should I quarantine or social distance, especially if I'm young and healthy?

Some residents may not think they're at risk or need to follow coronavirus guidelines if they appear to be healthy. But the Georgia Department of Public Health is seeing more and more young, healthy people getting sick with the virus, Folden says.

"We have now reached the point where the largest percentage of cases that we're seeing in Georgia is in the age group from 18 to 29 years old," says Folden. "They were just a blip on our radar for a while, and now it's just blown out, like we're almost at 50,000 cases of just 18 to 29 year olds."

Young people can contract the coronavirus and can develop a severe case. Some even lead to hospitalization. Young people may not realize that they have high blood pressure or diabetes, two conditions that increase their risk with coronavirus, Folden says.

If they don't ever develop symptoms, though, they can unknowingly pass it on to those around them.

"If you don't know if someone has high blood pressure, and you go from one party to the next, or you go from one, say, just a pool party or a barbecue from one to the one to another, and you're not staying with the same group of people all the time, you have no idea who you're exposing, and they don't know that they're being exposed," Folden says.

Even if you're not worried about coronavirus symptoms, it's important to consider that spreading the virus can be deadly for those who are at high risk.

"Once you do get to a mechanical ventilator when you have severe COVID-19 disease, the mortality numbers are really high," Singh said. "So I think it's really important for everyone to kind of understand that."

Is it OK to relax social distancing if it's my birthday, family reunion or another event?

Those are some of the worst reasons to break social distancing, Folden says, because any kind of party means that people will gather in close quarters, significantly increasing the chance that the virus will spread.

In July, the District 4 Department of Health saw an explosion of new cases that officials were able to trace back to pool parties, barbecues, family reunions and other gatherings over the Fourth of July weekend, according to Folden. Individuals who caught the virus at these events would then go to work or go to see other friends without knowing they had the virus, causing massive community spread.

"It just spread like wildfire," Folden says. "We don't want to see that."

Folden recommends doing a drive-by birthday party or postponing the event.

If masks and social distancing really work, why are we still doing it months later?

This goes back to the need for community-wide compliance, Folden said. Masks and social distancing significantly reduced the number of coronavirus cases at the beginning of the pandemic but didn't wipe out the virus entirely because not everyone was participating.

"If everybody does their part by staying six feet away from everybody else, wearing a mask when you're around other people and washing your hands -- if you do those three things, which are relatively inexpensive, we can slow this down and protect so many people and save lives," Folden says.


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