Since the first COVID-19 case appeared in Washington last month, The Columbian has received many phone calls, emails, Facebook queries and Clark Asks questions about COVID-19.
We’ve compiled more than a dozen of the most frequently asked questions, and answered them.
Why is it taking so long to get Clark County tests back?
The state is working through a backlog of tests, and tests from the Puget Sound area are prioritized because of the size of the outbreak in that region. Close to 90 percent of the state’s confirmed cases are in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, so there is more urgency around diagnosing cases in those counties.
How is coronavirus different from the flu?
More people have immunity to the flu than COVID-19, because they have been vaccinated or have had the flu before. The flu also has antiviral treatments available, which can lessen its severity and duration, while COVID-19 doesn’t. The flu is more contagious, but so far has a lower mortality rate than COVID-19, though researchers still need more data to know exactly how deadly it is. Getting a flu shot to protect against the flu is still important, because it can help prevent people from contracting the flu and overburdening hospital systems, which could see increased strain during the COVID-19 outbreak. There is no known end to COVID-19 in the same way that flu season typically ends sometime in the spring.
How long does it take to recover from COVID-19?
According to the World Health Organization it takes about two weeks for people with mild symptoms to recover, and three to six weeks for those with more severe symptoms. According to the Associated Press, more than 80,000 people in mainland China have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and more than 60,000 people have recovered.
Does the governor (mayor/other elected official) actually have the power to ban public gatherings?
Yes, Gov. Jay Inslee has the authority to ban public gatherings if he deems it necessary. On Friday, he announced that all public and private K-12 schools in Washington will close for at least six weeks due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19. Earlier in the week, he banned gatherings and events of more than 250 people in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Inslee banned all gatherings of more than 250 people through March 31 in Washington on Friday, and Oregon implemented a similar ban. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered that the state’s public schools cancel classes through March 31.
Why is Clark County different from Oregon/Seattle/Italy?
Clark County is significantly smaller than those places, so statistically, it means the county won’t have an outbreak the size of Seattle, Oregon or Italy. There are fewer cases of COVID-19 in Clark County, which is why the response has been more subdued up to this point. After two new positive cases were confirmed Friday, the county announced a public health emergency.
Should I worry if events get canceled and schools close?
While cancellations and closures might make you feel panicked, part of the reasoning behind those social-distancing measures — keeping people apart — is to avoid a surge of COVID-19 cases that would overwhelm our response systems. While social-distancing measures might make the outbreak last longer, they will decrease the number of cases at any one point in time. This will help response efforts of hospitals, first responders, police, schools and vaccine manufacturers because they won’t be overburdened with patients, and won’t have as much staff out sick at once.
What should people be doing to try to prevent the spread (at home/at work/at the grocery store, gym, mall)?
People should stay home if they are sick, even if they don’t believe their sickness to be COVID-19. They should also wash their hands frequently for at least 20 seconds and practice sneezing into the crook of their elbow — a vampire sneeze. It’s also important to touch your face as little as possible, although we know that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
What should you do if you are ill or think you might have COVID-19?
If you are sick with a fever or cough and have a higher risk for complications from severe respiratory infections, you should call ahead to a medical provider, according to the Washington Department of Health. Health officials may give you specific directions for what you’re supposed to do upon arrival if you need to be seen in person. If you have milder symptoms, you can still call your provider and ask about testing, but it’s up to a doctor’s discretion on whether you get tested for COVID-19. If you feel sick, you should stay home from work or school.
Why isn’t Public Health releasing exposure sites like it did with the measles outbreak?
There are two reasons for this, according to Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick. One reason is that, unlike measles, which can be spread through the air and linger for hours, COVID-19 is spread through contact within 6 feet, including droplets transmitted by sneezing or coughing. Public Health also doesn’t want to give people a false sense of security. For example, if someone with COVID-19 visited a grocery store at 10 p.m. Tuesday, and you didn’t visit that store at the same time, that doesn’t mean you should be less vigilant and feel safe from contracting the virus, which is circulating locally.
How long does COVID-19 live on surfaces?
The main spread of COVID-19 comes from person-to-person transmission. It is possible to contract the disease through touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, and then touching the mouth, nose or eyes. There have been studies that have shown the virus can live on surfaces for a few hours or even several days, according to the World Health Organization.
How does testing work? Why was it slow to start?
Medical providers collect samples from people and send them to laboratories for testing. There were problems with the original kits developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which meant states initially had to send specimens to the CDC in Georgia. That created a bottleneck and reduced early test results. Eventually, the CDC gave states permission to test, but labs still had to calibrate test kits, which include chemicals and biologics that are necessary to determine if specimens contain COVID-19, according to the Washington Department of Health. That calibration process took time and further delayed testing, but Washington now has the state’s public health lab and a lab at the University of Washington up and running.
What is the testing capacity in Washington?
Washington has a capacity to test about 3,200 specimens, or 1,600 people, per day. Some commercial laboratories are also starting to test. The state lab in Shoreline has a capacity to test 200 specimens per day, but generally two specimens are collected per person for testing. There’s a swab done through the nose, and one done in the throat, or through collecting phlegm if the person has a wet cough. When you hear a lab can test 200 specimens a day, that means 100 people a day. The University of Washington virology lab came online the first week of March and has worked its way up to about 3,000 specimens, or 1,500 people, a day. Medical providers should send their specimens directly to UW to speed up the response. The UW lab is actively building its capacity to 5,000 specimens — or 2,500 people — per day.
Effectiveness of soap vs. hand sanitizer? Are some household cleaners better than others for novel coronavirus?
Soap is always more effective than hand sanitizer at removing germs, dirt and bad chemicals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But if soap isn’t available, you should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has an alcohol concentration between 60 percent and 95 percent. It’s still unknown how effective disinfectants, such as Lysol wipes, are at killing COVID-19, and the CDC recommends cleaning surfaces with household bleach solutions or alcohol solutions that have at least 70 percent alcohol. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has compiled a list of disinfectants for use against COVID-19: www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2.
Have any “healthy” people died?
Younger, healthier people seem to be fairly safe from complications of COVID-19, but they can still carry the virus and pass it to others who are at a higher risk. As of Friday afternoon, 19 percent of Washington’s cases are younger than 40, but younger people are also probably being tested much less frequently than older populations. The World Health Organization has reported the death rate for COVID-19 at around 3.4 percent, but that number will likely drop significantly as more cases are confirmed. A WHO study from last month in China found that people older than 80 had a 21.9 percent mortality rate. That same study found that patients who had comorbid conditions — the presence of chronic diseases or conditions in addition to COVID-19 — have much higher mortality rates. Those rates were 13.2 percent for those with cardiovascular disease, 9.2 percent for diabetes, 8.4 percent for hypertension, 8 percent for chronic respiratory disease and 7.6 percent for cancer. Patients with no comorbidity had mortality rates of 1.4 percent, according to the study. The Italian Health Institute released data last week that shows that 88 percent of the country’s deceased are 70 and older.