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Yes, it's safe to receive a package from China. No, there are no media blackouts: Exploding myths about Covid-19

There are a few common misconceptions around the coronavirus. Here, we take some of them head on.
Mar 3rd 2020, 6:00 AM 35,135 17

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IN THE PAST week, it’s been confirmed that Covid-19 has come to Ireland. So far there have been two confirmed cases on the island – one in Belfast and another in Dublin.

Health authorities here say it was always likely the virus would reach Ireland, considering that so many other countries around the world are now dealing with cases.

It’s a relatively new virus, and even doctors are just starting to try get to grips with Covid-19 – how it spreads, how severe it is, how to protect the public. As it came to Europe, interest in learning more about it intensified here even prior to the first confirmed case.
TheJournal.ie readers have sent in dozens of questions they had about the coronavirus covering everything from how long it can live on surfaces to what will happen to people quarantined and unable to go to work.

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it.
WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 Email: answers@thejournal.ie

Today, we’re looking at some of the most common myths that are being repeated online, on WhatsApp groups and elsewhere to see if they hold up to scrutiny.

1. ‘Face masks do nothing to protect you’

Prior to the first case of Covid-19 in Ireland, chair of the HSE’s coronavirus expert advisory Dr Cillian De Gascún said there was no indication yet that people will have to wear face masks.

However, that doesn’t mean they can do nothing to protect you. 

“Masks certainly have a role to play, but they’re probably better at preventing somebody who is symptomatic from transmitting the infection onwards,” he said. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

According to the Department of Health wearing a mask is not necessary for people going about their daily business. 

But masks can help protect from droplets deposited by coughing or sneezing spreading to others. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), meanwhile, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with a suspected infection. 

It says you should also wear a mask if you’re coughing or sneezing. “Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water,” it says.

So hand-washing is still of vital importance but a mask can be helpful in certain situations. More on that here.

Source: World Health Organization (WHO)/YouTube

2. Only elderly people are at risk, so young people will be fine 

It is true to say that elderly people are more at risk of becoming gravely ill if they have Covid-19.

In the first big study of over 40,000 cases in China, the death rate for elderly people with the virus was 10 times that of people who were middle aged. More than 80% of those who’ve died are over the age of 60.

They are among some of the at-risk groups, which also includes those with a long-term medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease or liver disease. 

For those with asthma – which can affect all age groups – the coronavirus can set off asthma symptoms. The Asthma UK charity has this advice for people in light of the recent Covid-19 outbreak.

With anyone who gets Covid-19, the chance of a fatality is relatively low. Younger people are even less likely to die from the disease.

But the actions young people take are vital to prevent the spread of the disease. A young person who is at not risk of more serious adverse events from Covid-19 may pass it on to someone who is at risk if appropriate precautions aren’t taken.

3. It takes prolonged contact with someone to catch it

Covid-19 can be spread directly and indirectly. 

It spreads from person to person, usually after close contact with a person infected with the virus, for example in a household, healthcare facility or workplace.

Directly: Through contact with an infected person’s body fluids (eg. droplets from coughing). It is believed that the virus can spread if these fluids are passed onto another person through their eyes, mouth or nose, after an infected person coughed beside them, for example.

Indirectly: Through contact with surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on which are, therefore, contaminated with the virus. It is still not known how long the virus survives on surfaces. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), based on knowledge from similar viruses, it could survive as long as 48 hours on a surface. 

Scientists have said a person needs to be within two metres of an infected person for fifteen minutes or more to risk catching the virus directly.

However – and while the risk is low – it is possible to catch the virus indirectly as mentioned above. 

4. It’s just slightly worse than the normal winter flu

Covid-19 is such a new disease that it’s extremely hard to accurately what its mortality rate is. 

The data on the number of people dying compared to the number of people who have been diagnosed with the virus varies from country to country because some countries are better than others at spotting and treating the virus.

The best guess so far is around nine in every 1,000 Covid-19 cases will result in death, meaning that it has a 1% mortality rate. 

coronavirus A man wearing a facemask in Dublin Airport. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Images

If that is the case, it would make it far more deadly than flu. Earlier Chinese estimates put the mortality rate for coronavirus as potentially as high as 2%. 

The symptoms of Covid-19 include a cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties and a fever. 

5. We should be screening all visitors to the country at airports

It is true that some European countries have taken extra precautions following the Covid-19 spread in Italy. Austria, which borders the country, has said it will stop people from crossing if it believes they may have the virus and Croatia is also questioning people returning from Italy.

Here, the government is advising citizens to avoid all non essential travel to China or to a number of Italian towns, but is not placing any restriction on those travelling from affected areas. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Health officials have also said temperature-checking will not be happening at entry points. Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan told reporters that this is because “it doesn’t work”.

“With an infectious disease, maybe only a certain percentage of people will have fever. It’s also possible for people who don’t wish to be screened to take medication like paracetamol to reduce a fever,” he said.

“It’s also possible that a person who comes back from that region will have been exposed and will develop infection but the screening might be negative on the basis that the symptoms haven’t developed – they develop symptoms after they come through the airport. So you’re getting false reassurance that you’re picking cases up.

A high percentage of people who might go on to develop infection having come through the airport could be negative at the point at which they travel through the airport. And it would be a significant waste of resources.

6. The Pope has coronavirus

Pope Francis has cancelled a number of engagements in recent days as he battles an apparent cold.

The Vatican has been quick to shoot down speculation that the Pope has Covid-19.

“There is no evidence to suggest a diagnosis of anything other than a slight ailment,” a Vatican spokesman told AFP on Sunday.

While areas of northern Italy are worst affected, there is nothing at this stage to suggest Pope Francis has Covid-19.

The Vatican is in Rome and not in the affected areas to the north of Italy. It is the north of Italy that has seen the large majority of cases so far.

shutterstock_169969025 Source: Shutterstock/BIGANDT.COM

7. We’ll have a vaccine soon

When facing the media last week, US President Donald Trump said that the US “is rapidly developing a vaccine” for Covid-19. This is fairly misleading, as experts in America say “we can’t rely on a vaccine over the next several months”. 

China, meanwhile, has said it could start clinical trials for a potential vaccine around late April. 

A potential vaccine going from clinical trials to being made available to the public usually takes a very long time, even when it is being fast-tracked during an emergency.

The World Health Organisation said last week it could take a year or longer for a vaccine to become available. 

“The vaccine could be the long-term because it could take up to 12 to 18 months and this is like preparing for the worst situation,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

8. Is it alright to get food delivered if you’re in self-isolation?

If you’re in self-isolation due to the risk of potentially having Covid-19, there are several bits of advice provided by the HSE.

They urge you to “stay at home or in your hotel in a room on your own with a phone, do not go to work, school, religious services or public areas, do not use public transport or taxis and avoid having visitors in your home”. 

It’s also important to keep away from older people, those with long-term medical conditions or pregnant women. 

coronavirus Dept of Health officials Dr John Cuddihy, Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn have been providing regular updates. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

People in self-isolation don’t necessarily have the coronavirus. They could be left food, or have food delivered to them.

The NHS in England, for example says that you should ask friends, family members or delivery services to carry out errands for you, such as getting groceries, medicines or other shopping.

It also suggests making sure you tell delivery drivers to leave items outside for collection if you order online. They have more detailed information on the intricacies of self-isolation here.

9. Is it safe to receive a package from China?

It is not uncommon in this day and age to have items delivered from China if you’re shopping online.

The World Health Organisation is quite clear on this point.

It says: “Yes, it is safe. People receiving packages from China are not at risk of contracting the new coronavirus. From previous analysis, we know coronaviruses do not survive long on objects, such as letters or packages.”

10. Your mate’s friend’s friend knows someone who says there’s a confirmed case in x hospital and a media blackout over it

WhatsApp groups across the country lit up at several points over the course of last weekend, such as when the first case was confirmed in the Republic of Ireland and the case was related to a secondary school. 

Messages, videos, memes, Facebook posts and tweets which make claims about the virus being found in Ireland have been shared widely, particularly in the past 10 days or so.

The message is often similar: it says that a case has been confirmed, or is about to be confirmed. It names a specific hospital. It seems to come from an authoritative-sounding source: a friend of the person who sent it whose brother is a garda, for example.

But while some of them may have nuggets of truth, they’re often sowing misinformation and adding to the at-times cloudy conversation about coronavirus.

On the notion of a media blackout – i.e. the media deliberately not reporting a case in a hospital – this is extremely rare in Ireland. 

Requests for the media not to cover an ongoing situation are occasionally issued by An Garda Siochána – such as in this case last week where a teenager was arrested by gardaí in Donegal after a 54-hour stand-off – but not by the government.

The media – both local and national – has been reporting on information given by State authorities alongside original stories, articles from news agencies, videos and podcasts about the spread of the virus since the first cases emerged in China. 

With the Department of Health now holding daily briefings for the media, there will continue to be an extremely short window between the test results coming back positive and the public being informed.

Dr Tony Holohan pinpointed “misinformation” on social media when addressing reporters on Sunday evening as not being “grounded in science”. 

These rumours being spread – even with the small chance it might be true – should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

This detailed piece on this topic is well worth a read.

11. No, media outlets did not report a place in Ireland where the coronavirus was diagnosed and then edit their stories to remove the place names

Among the misinformation being shared on WhatsApp are actual doctored images of news websites.

TheJournal.ie was subject to one such hoax. A photoshopped image of one our articles made it appear as if a case of Covid-19 had been confirmed in Meath.

We never reported this, and there isn’t a confirmed case in Meath.

***

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering  being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not.

 STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always – a sign that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

With reporting from Michelle Hennessy, Christine Bohan, Gráinne Ní Aodha and AFP

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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