COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) April 2020 updates
These news stories have not been updated since the dates shown. Information contained in this post is here for reference only. Please see MIT Medical's most recent post for up-to-date information for the MIT community about COVID-19. (Coronavirus Disease 2019).
- April 28: The CDC has expanded its list of possible symptoms of COVID-19
- April 23: What makes handwashing the best defense against COVID-19?
- April 21: Are masks required for outdoor exercise?
- April 17: What's the buzz about antibody tests?
- April 15: The Sean Collier Care Center opens
- April 10: Seasonal allergies or COVID-19 symptoms?
April 30: The City of Cambridge is now requiring that all individuals over the age of five years wear face coverings in all public places, businesses, and common areas of residential buildings within the city. This includes lobbies, hallways, elevators, and stairwells, and all indoor or outdoor common areas, including sidewalks, streets, bus stops, parking lots, and garages. Violations are subject to a $300 fine.
Members of the MIT community who do not have a face covering can pick one up in Lobby 7 (77 Massachusetts Avenue) by showing their MIT ID. Links to instructions for making your own face coverings can be found in this FAQ.
April 29: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
How accurate are the laboratory tests used to diagnose COVID-19? I was wondering if someone could have a false positive due to having prior flu shots or for some other reason.
When we talk about the accuracy of a laboratory test, like the one used to diagnose infection with COVID-19, we’re actually talking about two different types of accuracy —“sensitivity,” which is the test’s ability to tell us when an individual is infected, and “specificity,” its ability to tell us when an individual is not infected. A test that is very sensitive is less likely to give false-negative results, and a test that is highly specific is less likely to give false positives.
The test used to diagnose COVID-19 is a molecular test. This means that it works by detecting genetic material from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. When someone is infected, this genetic material can be found in the nose and upper throat. The test uses a sample that is collected by inserting a long swab into the back of the nasal passage through the nostril. The genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 cannot be confused with the genetic material from other viruses, so the COVID-19 test is highly specific. This means it almost never gives a false positive. If you are tested for COVID-19, and the test comes back positive, you can be very sure that you are infected with this virus. And, no, a previous flu shot will not trigger a positive test.
Unfortunately, the test is not equally sensitive. If the specimen collection is not done perfectly, or if a patient is in an early stage of infection or already partially recovered from the illness, their nasal-swab sample might not contain enough viral material to come back positive. There are many stories about patients who tested negative soon after their symptoms began, only to test positive on a test done later. One case study describes a 34-year-old man who tested negative four times before finally testing positive five days after being admitted to a hospital.
Experts worry that a negative test can give people a sense of false security, leading them to be less careful about social distancing or other safety measures. Some have suggested that anyone who has coronavirus symptoms should assume they are infected, even if they test negative, a concept that is somewhat in line with the CDC’s newly updated diagnostic criteria. “That’s not a bad idea,” says Dr. Shawn Ferullo, MIT Medical’s chief of student health. “Though we don’t know exactly how high the false-negative rate really is, if you have any COVID-19 symptoms at all, you should be taking extreme precautions to make sure you’re not exposing others.”
And whether or not you have symptoms, given what we know about infected but asymptomatic individuals, none of us should assume we’re uninfected and incapable of spreading the infection to others. “That’s the assumption behind asking everyone to wear masks,” Ferullo notes. “We wear a mask and practice social distancing to protect others. Others do the same to protect us.”
April 28: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expanded its official list of possible symptoms of COVID-19, adding six new symptoms:
- Repeated shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat, and
- New loss of taste or smell.
We’ve mentioned most of these possible symptoms previously, based on reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies, but until recently, the CDC website had listed just three symptoms for COVID-19: fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
The addition of these six new symptoms was prompted by recommendations from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE), an an organization of public health epidemiologists that decides which infectious diseases should be tracked and reported to the CDC and provides guidelines about how cases should be defined and identified. The group’s recommendations, now adopted by the CDC, say that COVID-19 should be reported not only in the case of a positive lab test, but also when a patient has symptoms that include:
- At least ONE of these: Cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
- At least TWO of these: Fever, chills, shivers, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, new loss of taste and smell.
- No other, more plausible diagnosis.
CDC recommendations continue to stress that “emergency warning signs” necessitating immediate medical attention include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion or partial loss of consciousness, and bluish lips or face.
April 27: On April 14, we wrote about emerging reports of cats contracting COVID-19 and communicated the latest guidance from the CDC and veterinary experts. As more cases have emerged in the last several days, the guidelines for pets have been revised.
Last Wednesday (4/22), the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that two pet cats in New York State had tested positive for the virus. These cats, which live in different parts of the state, are the first house pets to test positive for the virus in the U.S. One of the cats lives with an individual who had been diagnosed with COVID-19; and the other cat lives in a household where no humans been diagnosed with the illness, meaning that the cat may have been infected by a mildly ill or asymptomatic person in the home or through contact with someone outside the home. Both cats were tested at veterinary laboratories, using tests specifically designed for animals. In both cases, the cats experienced only mild respiratory symptoms and are expected to make a full recovery.
While most of the animals to receive positive diagnoses of COVID-19 worldwide have been cats, two dogs in Hong Kong tested positive. Neither dogs showed symptoms of illness, though one of the dogs died after being released from quarantine, a death that was attributed to old age — the dog was 17 — rather than exposure to the virus. In a recent study, cats and ferrets were found to have a high susceptibility to the virus, while dogs were found to have a lower susceptibility.
The CDC’s updated recommendations for pets include the following:
- Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
- Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
- Walk dogs on a leash, staying at least 6 feet away from other people and animals.
- Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
If you are sick with COVID-19 (either suspected or confirmed by a test), restrict contact with your pets and other animals, just like you would around other people.
- When possible, have another member of your household care for your pets while you are sick.
- Avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, or sharing food or bedding.
- If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wear a cloth face covering, and wash your hands before and after you interact with them.
Although we are still learning more about how COVID-19 is spread, it is important to remember that while there have been cases of human-to-animal transmission, there is no evidence that pets can give the virus to their owners.
And while your indoor-outdoor cats may object to these new restrictions on their freedom to roam, avoiding the novel coronavirus isn’t the only possible health benefit. According to the American Veterinary Association, stay-at-home cats also avoid “injury, suffering, and death from vehicles; attacks from other animals; euthanasia; human cruelty; poisons; traps; and weather extremes.” Not to mention that the songbird population would probably appreciate a period of social distancing from their feline friends.
April 23: The last two months have involved a lot of lengthy, halfhearted renditions of the Happy Birthday song, all of which have been unaccompanied by cake.
You know the drill. After touching a doorknob or grabbing the mail, you come inside and wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, equivalent to two verses of the birthday song. Hand washing has been so widely cited by experts as the best protection against COVID-19 that a recent study found that Google searches for “wash hands” were correlated with the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in 21 countries.
But as you scrub and hum, you’re probably wondering what makes hand washing with soap and water such a powerful weapon against the virus?
The answers are fat and contact time.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus strain that causes the COVID-19 illness, is an enveloped virus. This means that underneath its now-iconic spikes, the viral molecule is encased in a protective fatty membrane. The spikes on the outside allow the molecule to catch on and easily adhere to human tissue and hard surfaces, while the fatty membrane repels water. This makes it very difficult to dislodge the virus particles using water alone.
This is where soap comes to the rescue. Whether in liquid or bar form, soap is made by combining animal or vegetable fat with an alkaline solution and is composed of collections of two-sided molecules called micelles. The tail of the soap micelle is attracted to oil, and its head is attracted to water. When soap comes into contact with enveloped viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the oil-loving tail of the micelle bonds with the virus’s fatty membrane while the head of the micelle drags the virus towards the water. Eventually, this pulling and dragging breaks open the fatty envelope covering the virus particle, so the viral contents can be rinsed away.
For soap to do its job well, you must give it sufficient contact time to fully encase any viral molecules present and break them down. Start with a generous amount of soap, then spend your first 10 seconds distributing the lather on the front and back of your hands, in between your fingers, and underneath your nails. Spend your next 10 seconds doing all that once more, then rinse those ruptured molecules down the drain.
After weeks of relentless hand washing, you may feel tempted to cut your scrubbing short at times. But to do so would be to disable one of the most potent weapons we have against not only this virus, but other germs as well. You may not get any cake when you’re finished singing Happy Birthday, but you’re still getting a pretty great gift.
April 22: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
I’m wondering how wind might affect the six-foot social-distancing recommendation when I am outdoors? In particular, if I’m directly downwind of someone, should that distance increase?
We’re going to say, “probably not.”
But that answer comes with a few caveats. The first is that that the six-foot recommendation is not carved in stone. Rather, it has to do with the maximum distance that large respiratory droplets from a sneeze or cough are thought to travel, based on research done in the middle of the last century. However, more recent research shows that smaller droplets from coughs or sneezes may travel much farther than six feet. And wind could cause respiratory droplets of any size to travel farther still.
On the other hand, it’s not clear how this newer research applies to COVID-19 or if viral particles that have traveled a great distance would still be stable and concentrated enough to be infectious. A recent study showed that COVID-19 viral particles disperse, or break apart, relatively quickly in the air under normal conditions. Wind would make these particles diffuse even faster.
And, of course, though masks don’t negate the need for social distancing, they do keep those large respiratory droplets from traveling very far in the first place. Your mask protects other people, and their masks help to protect you.
But as far as the question of wind and social distancing, in all likelihood, it’s pretty much a wash. Although viral particles can be carried farther on a windy day, the wind would also offset that potential danger by dissipating those particles to the point where they’d pose very little risk. So, unless you are downwind of someone who is actively coughing in your direction, you’re probably safe maintaining a six-foot distance. And, meteorological conditions aside, if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of someone who is actively coughing and not covering that cough in any way, you should immediately put as much distance between yourself and that individual as possible.
April 21: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
With the new CDC guidelines about cloth masks, should I be wearing a mask or face covering even when I go out for a walk or run? I have started running on less crowded streets in my neighborhood to maintain a safe distance. But in the city, it isn’t always possible to be 6 feet away all the time when others are also out walking and exercising.
Yes, you should be wearing a mask at any time you cannot maintain a six-foot distance from those around you. Even when walking or running.
Or perhaps especially when walking or running, says Dr. Shawn Ferullo, MIT Medical’s chief of student health. “The main purpose of the mask is not to protect you, but to protect other people from you, in case you are infected but asymptomatic,” he notes. “A runner or walker who is breathing heavily releases more respiratory droplets into the air and expels them further. If that individual is infected, they are likely releasing more virus into the air.” This may or may not be somewhat balanced out by the fact that rapid movement disturbs the air around you, which might more quickly dilute any virus you release.
In any case, if you can’t avoid other people when exercising, you should cover your mouth and nose. According to the CDC, this facial covering should fit snugly over your nose and mouth, which probably won’t be very uncomfortable when walking but may be difficult to maintain while running. It could require some experimentation to find a “mask” that works for you and your level of activity. You might try making your own face covering using a moisture-wicking running shirt. Links to a how-to video and some patterns, including no-sew options, can be found in our April 6th update. Some runners have started using neck gaiters to cover their mouth and nose in lieu of a mask — though depending on the thickness of the material, you might need to fold it over a few times to create a sufficiently thick barrier.
Whatever type of facial covering you decide to use, remember that it’s no substitute for effective social distancing. So, try to schedule your runs for times when fewer people will be outside, and stay as far away as possible from anyone else who is out and about. And do keep walking and running. Exercise is crucial for physical and mental health, perhaps now more than ever.
April 17: We’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about antibody tests for COVID-19. Antibody tests, sometimes called “serology tests,” are blood tests that look for signs of an immune response to infection — in this case, immune molecules, or antibodies, specifically targeted to fighting the new coronavirus. An antibody test for COVID-19, if accurate, could indicate if you had previously been infected with the virus, even if you never had any symptoms.
For most illnesses, specific antibodies can be detected about four weeks post-infection. But we don’t know if antibodies to COVID-19 will follow the same timeline. We also aren’t sure how long COVID-19 antibodies last or if they confer immunity to reinfection.
“Antibody tests are being talked about a lot as a possible way to manage the pandemic in the future,” explains Dr. Shawn Ferullo, MIT Medical’s chief of student health. “If an individual with a positive antibody test is immune to COVID-19, they could go back to work or school and resume their normal activities without fear of becoming ill or infecting others. But South Korea is reporting some cases of repeat infection in individuals who have had the virus previously. So we still don’t know if a positive antibody test truly means immunity to the virus.”
Test accuracy is another concern. Beginning last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relaxed existing rules and began allowing companies to market COVID-19 antibody tests without requiring them to submit validation data proving that these tests gave accurate results. As a result, of the more than 100 COVID-19 antibody tests currently in use or soon to be in use, only a handful have actually been validated and approved by the FDA. And even tests that have been validated will be more or less accurate depending on the percentage of people in the population who have actually been exposed to the virus. When that percentage is relatively low, the likelihood of false positives is higher.
Despite these caveats, Ferullo believes that antibody testing will become a useful tool as the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19 increases. In fact, MIT Medical’s clinical laboratory is gearing up to be able to perform antibody tests in house.
In the meantime, however, we don’t recommend spending your own money to purchase antibody tests that are mentioned in social media or advertised online. Antibody testing is a decision you’ll eventually make in partnership with your healthcare provider. And by that time, we should know more about the accuracy of the test and what a positive result might mean in terms of possible sustained immunity to the virus.
April 16: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
Is it true that people should avoid anti-inflammatory drugs if infected with COVID-19?
Unclear. This advice has been erroneously attributed to the World Health Organization. However, it actually began spreading after a March 14 tweet from French Health Minister Olivier Véran, cautioning COVID-19 patients against ibuprofen and encouraging the use of acetaminophen (Tylenol) instead. This warning was, apparently, based on anecdotal reports that some people who had taken ibuprofen — one of a part of a broader class of drugs called “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs” or NSAIDs — experienced a worsening of their symptoms.
Both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency quickly responded with statements asserting that there is no current scientific evidence for a link between NSAIDs and worsening of COVID 19 symptoms. However, both agencies are continuing to investigate the question. In addition, the FDA statement noted that “all prescription NSAID labels warn that ‘the pharmacological activity of NSAIDs in reducing inflammation, and possibly fever, may diminish the utility of diagnostic signs in detecting infections.’”
Beyond a masking of symptoms, it’s also the case that when sick individuals take any drug to reduce fever, they may be interfering with the body’s natural defenses against infection. At least one study found that symptoms lasted longer when patients took fever-reducing drugs — though it’s important to note that we don’t know if this would be the case in individuals with COVID-19. On the other hand, high fevers can be dangerous, especially for the very young, pregnant women, and individuals with certain underlying medical conditions. Not to mention that fevers make us feel miserable.
The bottom line is that we don’t yet have enough information to answer this question definitively but recommend healthy skepticism of blanket claims about the use of either type of medication for the treatment of fever associated with COVID-19. Since both NSAIDs and acetaminophen have potential side effects, this is a question to be discussed with your own healthcare provider, who can give you advice about which medication to take or whether you should take medication at all.
April 15: Throughout the course of the COVID-19 emergency, MIT has worked in partnership with the City of Cambridge to provide medical supplies, equipment, and services to the larger community. Today, the Institute opened a fully licensed, 75-bed facility for COVID-19 patients from the MIT community and the broader Cambridge community. Located in the Johnson Ice Rink on the MIT campus, the Sean Collier Care Center — named for fallen MIT Police Officer Sean Collier — is funded by MIT and staffed by clinicians from MIT Medical.
“Creating this center on such short notice was an incredible team effort, bringing together partners from emergency management, student life, athletics, finance, facilities, space planning, and many others,” says Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis, MD. “It has been a deeply rewarding experience and is the epitome of what ‘One MIT’ truly means." Read more about the Collier Care Center from MIT News.
April 14: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
I have an older indoor cat. Can I give her the COVID-19 virus if I don’t have any symptoms? She is not in contact with other pets or people.
Human-to-feline COVID-19 transmission has been in the news recently, including a story about a 4-year-old Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo that became ill and tested positive for the virus, apparently after coming into contact with an infected zookeeper, and a domestic cat in Belgium that contracted the virus from its owner.
While there is no evidence that cats can give the virus to humans, it’s clear that humans can spread the virus to cats. So, if you have received a positive test for COVID-19, the CDC recommends isolating yourself from everyone, including pets, even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms. If you can, ask someone else to look in on your cat while you isolate, or invest in an automatic feeder to minimize your contact until your period of isolation is over.
If you have not been tested for COVID-19, don’t have symptoms, and you’ve been practicing social distancing and good hygiene, you can safely interact with cats and other pets. It’s worth noting that while a recent study in Science documented that cats and ferrets are more susceptible to contracting the illness from humans, the virus does not replicate well in dogs, pigs, chickens, or ducks, so if your fur baby is a Shiba Inu or your feather baby is a Rhode Island Red, you have even less to fear.
April 13: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
I’ve gotten the following advice about preventing COVID-19: “You should be gargling with warm water with salt or a vinegar solution twice a day. It helps keep the virus and other things from traveling from your throat to the lungs.”
Is this good advice and something a medical professional would endorse or recommend?
No. While this claim has spread widely on social media, there is no evidence that gargling warm water with salt or a vinegar solution prevents infection with COVID-19. Interestingly, this “cure” was popular during the spread of SARS, MERS, and Zika as well — and was equally useless then.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends gargling with warm salty water as one way to soothe a sore throat, it won’t work to stop infection with COVID-19 or any other virus.
April 10: Are you suddenly coughing, noticing an unusual “tickle” in your throat, or dabbing at a runny nose? With the COVID-19 pandemic raging around us, virtually any upper respiratory symptom may be worrying. But it’s also spring — a particularly early spring in the Boston area and many other places — complete with budding trees, flowers, and pollen.
So, what’s causing your symptoms? How can you tell the difference between symptoms of seasonal allergy and symptoms of possible COVID-19 infection? Let’s start by looking at the table below:
|Fever above 100.4°F/38.0°C||Often||Never|
|Shortness of breath||Often||Never|
|Loss of smell or taste||Sometimes||Never|
While a dry cough is common in both seasonal allergies and COVID-19, a cough related to an “itch” or “tickle” in your throat is most likely due to seasonal allergies. Itchy eyes or sneezing are another sign that you are most likely suffering from seasonal allergies. A fever, on the other hand, would be cause for concern; as would shortness of breath, body aches, and extreme fatigue.
“But it’s not about any one symptom,” emphasizes Dr. Shawn Ferullo, MIT Medical’s chief of student health. “You need to realistically evaluate all your symptoms as a whole.” And, unfortunately, it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. “Even if you have classic allergy symptoms like itchy eyes and a runny nose, you shouldn’t ignore potentially worrying symptoms like fever and severe fatigue,” he adds.
Several types of over-the-counter medications can help ease allergy symptoms. These include oral antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin, Alavert) or cetirizine (Zyrtec), nasal sprays such as fluticasone propionate (Flonase), or medications that combine an antihistamine with a decongestant.
For symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, dry cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath, call MIT Medical’s COVID-19 hotline at 617-253-4865 to talk with a clinician and get advice about what to do next.
April 8: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
Could I get COVID-19 from eating take-out food that had somehow become contaminated by airborne viral particles?
We can’t answer this question with an absolute “no,” but we can tell you it is very unlikely that you would become sick in this way. Although we are still learning more about the virus, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.
This is not surprising based on what we know about the different paths organisms take to make people sick. Respiratory viruses, like COVID-19, typically attach to cells in places like the lungs and cannot survive the acidic environment of the digestive system. In contrast, the microorganisms that cause digestive illnesses, like norovirus and salmonella, survive the acid in stomachs and make people ill by attaching to the cells inside their intestines.
In addition, we wouldn’t expect viral particles landing on food to remain viable for very long. Unlike bacteria, viruses cannot grow inside food, so any amount of virus that ended up in food would diminish over time, rather than grow.
When it comes to take-out food and COVID-19, your biggest risk is contact with other people — like cashiers, restaurant staff, or delivery people. Minimizing or completely eliminating those contacts will greatly reduce any risk associated with restaurant take-out.
April 8: The table at the top of this page displays counts of MIT students, regular and contract employees, and MIT Medical patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Do you have a positive case to report? Send us an email at email@example.com. Please include the following information:
- Name of the individual who has tested positive
- That individual’s relationship to MIT
- Date of their last visit to campus (or another MIT facility)
- Where they currently are living
- Date of symptom onset
- Date of positive COVID-19 test and where that test was done. (If no test has been done, tell us how the diagnosis was established.)
While we hope these numbers will remain low, we also want them to be as accurate as possible. We thank you for your help in this effort.
April 7: We’ve been busy answering your questions directly and through our daily updates, but we haven’t been as diligent about updating our COVID-19 FAQ. That changes now.
Our freshly updated Frequently Asked Questions page is where you’ll find the latest information about the virus, with an emphasis on the practical — Is it safe to open the mail, take a walk, eat take-out food? Should I wear a mask? How about disposable gloves? What should I do if the person I live with needs to self-isolate?
Check it out, and if you still have questions you think we should answer, let us know by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 6: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
After my hip replacement, I had to do deep breathing exercises to avoid pneumonia. I used to sing in a chorus and was one of the last ones to need a breath when we had these little competitions in the chorus to see how long we could hold a note. I wonder if it would help healthy folks avoid serious illness with COVID-19 if they did deep breathing to strengthen and expand lung capacity?
Thanks for an interesting question! Unfortunately, we still don’t know exactly why some people who contract COVID-19 have relatively mild symptoms, while others end up with pneumonia, or in the most serious cases, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). The latter results from fluid build-up in the air sacs of lungs, which prevents the lungs from taking in sufficient air and deprives other organs of the oxygen they need to function.
Because research about the virus is still in the early stages, there is no data to indicate whether people with increased lung capacity are less vulnerable to serious illness or more likely to recover than others. Though the fatality rate for COVID-19 has been higher in people who are older or have preexisting conditions, the virus has also infected enough healthy and active people that it is not yet possible to predict whether healthy lungs offer any sort of insurance policy against virus complications. For now, the best approach to preventing complications of COVID-19 remains avoiding infection through good hygiene and social distancing.
But that’s not to say that you should stop your deep breathing exercises! You should do what you can to maintain lung capacity, which naturally diminishes as we age and can contribute to reduced aerobic and cognitive abilities. But most importantly, deep breathing exercises are a proven method to manage stress and anxiety, a valuable skill in the uncertain times ahead.
Maybe you could consider teaching your breathing exercises to others. Use a video chat program like Zoom or FaceTime to hold breathing workshops with friends and loved ones. Your breathing exercises may not be able to prevent the virus or its complications, but they can fight one of the virus’s most dangerous byproducts: anxiety.
April 6: As has been widely anticipated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that individuals wear non-medical-grade, cloth face coverings in public settings where it may be difficult to maintain social distancing, such as grocery stores, especially in areas with significant community-based spread of COVID-19. This recommendation is based on recent reports that a significant number of individuals who are infected with COVID-19 remain asymptomatic and so will continue to go out in public, where they may unwittingly infect others. If everyone wears masks, this might help prevent those who are unknowingly infected from spreading the illness.
However, the CDC emphasizes, they are not recommending that individuals purchase surgical masks or N-95 respirators that are desperately needed for frontline healthcare workers. Rather, the CDC recommends making your own. You can sew a mask or use a 3D printer; the links below are a good place to start, but lots of other patterns and how-to videos are just a web search away. This video, for example, shows you how to create a no-sew face covering using a T-shirt or face towel and a couple of rubber bands or elastic hair ties. As a general rule, the thicker the fabric the better. Bandanas might seem handy, but they’re typically made of very thin fabric, so if you choose to go the bandana route, fold it to double, triple, or quadruple thickness.
The most important thing to remember is that face coverings are no substitute for all the other precautions we’ve been advising. Wearing a mask, or seeing other people with masks, should not give you a false sense of security. Continue to be vigilant about social distancing, hand washing, and keeping your hands away from your face — whether it’s covered with a mask or not.
Do-it-yourself face masks
April 3: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
We have two household cleaners who wear masks and gloves to periodically clean and disinfect our house. They wear these items presumably for their own personal safety. Does their use of the items in any way affect our own safety? Can you give us an opinion on whether we should advise them to eliminate using these items when they enter our house?
The use of house-cleaning services during this time of social distancing raises a number of questions, the most crucial being whether it’s safe to continue these services at all.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. On the one hand, the reason we’re staying at home as much as possible is because we’re trying to lessen our risk of being exposed to the virus, which we know is circulating in the community outside of our doors. And we know that every person who enters our home from the outside increases that risk incrementally.
Based on that reasoning, and taking into account your individual risk of complications from contracting the virus, such as age or underlying medical conditions, it may make sense to suspend house-cleaning services during this time. (However, recognizing that house-cleaners are often immigrants and low-wage workers, you may want to consider continuing to pay them if you can afford to do so.)
On the other hand, if you do continue to use house-cleaning services, it’s important to take precautions that protect both you and the cleaners. Even though they are there to make your house clean, they could still transmit the virus to you, or you to them, if either of you were infected. The protective gear your cleaners are wearing should help to protect everyone, and you definitely shouldn’t tell them to lose the mask and gloves. But you should also make sure that they’re not wearing the same pair of gloves to clean your house that they wore to clean the one before yours. Make sure they don a fresh pair of disposable gloves when they enter your home and change them often while they are working. Stay at least six feet away from both cleaners while they are in your home. And ask them not to come if they feel sick or if you become ill. You might also think about trying to limit the amount of time they spend in your home each time they visit; perhaps more time-consuming cleaning jobs, like washing windows, can wait another month or two.
There’s no way to remove all risks associated with having people come into your house to clean, but being vigilant about following these precautions will mitigate these risks if you continue to use house-cleaning services during this time.
April 2: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
I’ve heard that putting Vicks VapoRub under your nostrils helps to keep germs out. Is this something that might help to keep someone from getting infected with COVID19?
This is a great question! Alas, like so many things in life, there’s a kernel of truth in this rumor, but it won’t work in practice and could actually make you very sick.
The active ingredients in Vick’s VapoRub are camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol, which work together to suppress coughs and produce a warming sensation on the skin that is soothing when you’re sick. In fact, VapoRub catapulted to popularity during the pandemic flu of 1918 and has been a popular over-the-counter remedy for respiratory illnesses ever since.
Camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol all have antibacterial properties, so using them to create a protective barrier between your own nose and the respiratory secretions that cause COVID-19 may seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, besides being extremely uncomfortable, using VapoRub in your nostrils puts you at risk of developing an extremely ominous-sounding illness called exogenous lipoid pneumonia (ELP), which results from the aspiration or inhalation of fat-like material of animal, vegetable or mineral origin. Long story short, the petrolatum base of VapoRub, when inhaled, can travel to the lungs, where it collects and causes ground-glass opacities — a type of damage also associated with COVID-19.
If you’re feeling ill from any respiratory ailment, using VapoRub on your chest or in a vaporizer may soothe your symptoms. Your healthcare provider can also advise you on other methods to soothe congestion and body aches. But if you’re looking for good ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we would suggest that you put down the Vick’s, and reach for the hand soap instead.
April 1: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
As the CDC and other national health authorities (Austria, Germany, Singapore) reconsider that everyone wears a mask in public to reduce the spread of the virus from asymptomatic people, what does MIT Medical advise? If mask wearing becomes encouraged, where can I get a mask, and what kind should I buy?
MIT Medical’s approach has always been to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). At this point, both organizations are still recommending masks for people who are sick, to prevent them from spreading the illness to others, but continue to say that healthy people do not need to wear face masks routinely. The CDC puts it bluntly: “If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a face mask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a face mask).”
But you’re right; the CDC may be reconsidering this recommendation. Other experts have also started recommending more routine wearing of masks based on recent reports that a significant number of individuals who are infected with COVID-19 remain asymptomatic and so will continue to go out in public, where they may unwittingly infect others. If asymptomatic people wear masks, the thinking goes, this might help to prevent those who are unknowingly infected from spreading the illness, even if even if face masks may not provide their wearers with significant protection against infection from others.
But none of that changes the fact that face masks for frontline healthcare workers are in short supply, which is an even greater risk to the community. Inadequately protected healthcare workers can easily become infected and can spread the virus while asymptomatic. And once they become sick, they can no longer care for patients. So, while you might consider wearing a mask, we do NOT recommend that you buy commercially made masks that might otherwise go to a healthcare provider.
Rather, we’d like you to consider making your own. You can sew a mask using a pattern or improvise another kind of face covering; the links below are a good place to start, but lots of other patterns and how-to videos are just a web search away. As a general rule, the thicker the fabric the better — for example, a heavy cotton T-shirt would work nicely. Bandanas might seem handy, but they’re typically made of very thin fabric, so if you choose to go the bandana route, fold it to double, triple, or quadruple thickness. If you decide to start wearing a face covering in public, make a couple, so you can put used masks in the laundry right away.
The most important thing to remember is that face coverings are no substitute for all the other precautions we’ve been advising. Wearing a mask, or seeing other people with masks, should not give you a false sense of security. Continue to be vigilant about social distancing, hand washing, and keeping your hands away from your face — whether it’s covered with a mask or not.
Do-it-yourself face masks