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Infectious disease expert answers viewer questions about COVID-19
HALIFAX -- COVID-19 has left many Maritimers with questions about the virus itself and how to deal with it.
CTV News Atlantic reached out to viewers to find out what they wanted to know about the coronavirus, or COVID-19, and dozens responded.
Wednesday night, CTV News Atlantic anchor Steve Murphy sat down with Dr. Lisa Barrett to learn the answers to the questions that mattered most to Maritimers.
Dr. Barrett is a medical doctor and clinician scientist with expertise in infectious disease and human immunology.
In addition to a PhD and MD from Memorial University, an internal medicine residency at Dalhousie University and an infectious disease fellowship at the University of Toronto, her training includes post-doctoral training at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland.
During her training at the National Institute of Health in Maryland, Dr. Barrett worked with prominent American physician and immunologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is a member of the coronavirus task force in the United States.
Below is a transcript of the interview:
1. Do we need to disinfect/clean all of our groceries and grocery bags?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: This is a respiratory virus. It is spread by contact of the virus with your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you aren’t getting that virus into your eyes, nose, or mouth, then you are not going to get the infection.
Therefore, if there is a bit of virus on your vegetables, or on the shopping bags, and you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water appropriately before you touch your face, then you are not going to get virus into your eyes, nose, or mouth.
However, many people have a lot of anxiety about this. People may touch their face a lot, I know I’m a face-toucher and it’s hard, and if you’d like to wash your vegetables, then that’s OK.
Do I feel like you have to sterilize or wash every vegetable that you eat? I really don’t because of how the virus is spread.
2. Should we wash our clothes after shopping?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: I think most people will wash their clothes daily. I think that’s reasonable, especially at a time like this.
There’s more virus in the community and your ability to run into it on a surface is higher. Is it reasonable at the end of the day to consider washing your clothes after you get home to your environment?
It’s OK to wash your clothes, but I wouldn’t say you have to run from your door and run to the shower naked and strip off all your clothes as you go.
3. If I order takeout and the cook is sick (but unaware), is there a chance that the food will contain the virus?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: We don’t know everything about this virus yet. What we do know is that it is surrounded by a fatty layer and that fatty layer can get disrupted by many things.
The other part of food is the chances that it has a lot of virus and is very infectious is very, very low. Even if someone happened to have a bit of a sneeze around your food as it was being prepared, the chances are very low.
Also, the food goes down into your stomach and your stomach is full of acid that will definitely disrupt that virus and make it un-infectious. It’s only when it is in your eyes, nose, and mouth that it is a real infectious risk.
4. Is it OK to do some baking and share it with my elderly neighbour, as long as we have no contact?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: We really want people to keep their distance from each other. However, it’s also pretty important that we look out for each other.
If people are careful, they don’t have symptoms, they are not touching their face, and with the appropriate hand-washing, if they do some baking and put it outside in a bag in front of their neighbour’s door, I see nothing wrong with that.
If the neighbour taking it in would like to wipe it off with an appropriate wipe, that’s fine.
5. Can a person with COVID-19 pass on the virus before they are showing symptoms?
Dr. Lisa Barrett:What we know at this point is that before you have symptoms, there may well be some virus in your upper airway tracts – like in the back of your throat or at the back of your nose. The questions is how infectious it is and we’re not sure.
At this point, we suspect that it is not as infectious as you are later on with higher amounts of virus. However, that is not certain and it may differ from person to person, which is why we tell people at this point, not just if you have symptoms but all the time, stay six feet away from each other, because those droplets that you create when you talk, cough, or sneeze, drop out of the air within six feet.
Although it is an interesting question, and we may or may not know the answer entirely yet, the real and practical implication is that you stay six feet away from other people because they may well be somebody who has the virus and they don’t yet know it.
6. Are people more or less susceptible to contracting the virus after they have already had it once?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: What we know is that coronaviruses of other kinds, they cause a version of the common cold every year and you do get some immunity, but it doesn’t tend to be completely protective.
Whether or not, after you are exposed to this coronavirus, the immunity that you develop is actually protective, is not quite clear yet.
We hope so and we hope that that kind of immunity is what we will harness with a vaccine in the future, but right now, we think that it may be partially effective. We don’t know if it is completely effective in preventing you from getting it again. Which is why, for the duration of this outbreak and pandemic, even if you have had the virus, you should be just as careful as if you hadn’t had it.
7. We have been advised that wearing a facemask is not necessary. Now, Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx in the States are considering the possibility that wearing masks may help everyone after all. Which is correct?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: The reason that masks weren’t advised early in the pandemic was that the risk of virus around people was lower. As you go through and you recognize that there are more people around you who may have the virus, whether they know it or not, it becomes much clearer that your risk of becoming infected is higher.
When your risk of infection is not high, because there is lower numbers in the community around you, it’s actually not worth it to wear a mask for a couple of reasons.
One, the masks can, depending on the type of mask you have, give you a false sense of security. Not all masks are made equal, and, in fact, some reusable cotton masks may actually be a bit of a risk for you becoming infected if there is virus on it and you wear it for a long time.
Number two, you have to take the mask off properly and dispose of it properly in order for it not to be a risk for you. So it is all about risk and benefit. When the risk around you becomes very high it may be, may be, something to consider to use masks more widely.
We also have to couple that with education on how to wear them and we have to have enough of them out there that actually work. So that’s why the information is changing as we move through this pandemic.
8. If you can’t find cleaners or bleach, would soap and water work to sanitize high-touch areas?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: We prefer one of the disinfectants that are recommended and, if we run out of bleach, we’ve got bigger problems. Fortunately, it is in vast supply.
On the Health Canada website and also the Nova Scotia government website, there is a list of some disinfectants that are recommended and have been vetted through some pretty smart sciencey types that will tell you what will work.
As for soap and water, it is a little more variable in terms of the different effects and how long it would take to work. If you are really, really stuck and you can’t find bleach, I never tell people not to wash things with soap and water. I would just be cautious about how effective it might be. But again, bleach is not running out and it is cheap.
What about vinegar and water, does it act as a disinfectant?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: No.
9. How long does it take for the virus to die after coming in contact with alcohol-based cleanser or soap?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: Because of the way alcohol interacts with that fatty layer around the virus, it pretty much bursts it open pretty quickly.
So, by the time your alcohol hand sanitizer dries, you’ve pretty much done a good job of disinfecting your hands of this particular virus and others.
As you know, it dries pretty fast, so the answer is pretty darn quick.
10. How long can the virus survive on paper products?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: A lot of the information that is out there has come from this one study -- they took some similar viruses and put them in a lab environment and did different things with them to see how long the virus was “alive.”
Now, viruses aren’t alive -- they need a host to live.
That paper found that, depending on the surface the virus was on, it could last between three hours and three days. On paper, it probably lasts for a little while, but not that long.
I guess, to me, that is a bit of a splitting-hairs kind of question, because what I am doing at this point, I’m assuming that there is virus around me. I’m assuming that things I touch may have come in contact with the virus and, therefore, I’m washing my hands a lot and I’m not touching my face.
Really and truly, right now, answering if it is one hour or four hours is not the right question. A really good question is, how do I keep myself from getting infected if there is virus around me? And the answer is wash your hands a heck of a lot, wash your surfaces, and don’t touch your face.
11. Can a person transfer COVID-19 to a dog or cat and the pet pass it on to another person?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: I’m going to say that we don’t really know the answer. It seems that not a whole lot of dogs are going around with the coronavirus and a lot of people have dogs around them when they have coronavirus.
So right now I would say, who knows if it could happen, but it doesn’t seem to frequently happen.
12. True or false? You should not take ibuprofen/Advil if you get the virus.
Dr. Lisa Barrett: We don’t know for sure. There was what we call a safety signal in China that maybe ibuprofen may be a problem; other groups have said no it is not.
So we don’t know the right answer. If you have a choice, for that and many other reasons, maybe it is OK to use Tylenol, unless you have a reason not to use it. So avoid it for now if you can, but don’t worry too much if you have to take it as part of your regular medications suggested by your doctor.