More than one contagion has swept over us these past couple of weeks. We don’t just have the new coronavirus to worry about, there’s also the spread of bad information and the anxiety it creates. On both levels, we can protect ourselves.
As of Saturday afternoon there were 102,427 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus worldwide, according to a global tracker compiled from local, national and international sources by the Department of Civil and Systems Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The vast majority were in China; 340 were in the United States. Globally there had been 3,491 deaths, including a dozen in the Seattle area. (Since those numbers were last updated, two more deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus in Florida.)
It’s evident that the virus has spread even more broadly. Thousands of people are under self-quarantine — 2,700 in New York City alone — usually asked to isolate themselves because they traveled to a country where the virus is widespread or were exposed to someone with a confirmed case of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. Not everyone under quarantine is actually tested, however, due to a slow roll-out of tests for the virus in the United States.
That has much to do with the uncertainty surrounding the breadth of this illness, and it creates a fertile field for misinformation. Blend the spread of a serious virus, a lack of concrete information about its spread and a shortage of tests to determine who has it in a social media and internet mixer, and the results are fairly predictable.
Washing your hands, not touching your face and staying home if you’re sick are among the best ways to avoid the new coronavirus, and to prevent its spread if you’re sick. Those are facts. Being mindful of news sources and wary of what you’ll find culturing in the swamps of Facebook and Twitter are the best ways to inoculate yourself from information that is wrong and, in some cases, dangerous.
The websites Snopes.com, which uses research to lance the boils of misleading and bogus claims, and substantiate what is real, devotes an entire section of its site to the coronavirus. For example, there is the misleading assertion that someone with a “wet cough,” as opposed to a dry one, doesn’t have the virus. That’s debunked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the writers at Snopes.com point out it is both “incorrect and potentially dangerous.”
There’s an urban legend about ice cubes (there’s nothing wrong with them) and another about whether the virus was predicted in an episode of the “Simpsons.” (It wasn’t.) Drinking water, washing your hands often and even gargling, on the other hand, have positive benefits — especially washing your hands.
One of the most ridiculous examples of an internet story run amok involved Tito’s Vodka. With a run on hand sanitizer in many retail stores, a certain do-it-yourself suggestion started making the rounds. It involved a MacGyver-like home remedy whose most important ingredient was vodka.
The Austin, Texas-based Tito’s stepped in to emphasize the CDC’s recommendation that hand sanitizer be a mixture with at least 60% alcohol. While strong, Tito’s is nowhere near that strong. If you’re truly concerned about keeping your hands germ-free, a bar of soap remains your best bet.
Internet silliness aside, there’s nothing funny about COVID-19 and its effects. Older people and those whose immune systems are already compromised — by lung, kidney or heart disease — are especially vulnerable. Even if you’re healthy now, it’s not a bad idea to make plans for what you’ll do if you get sick, for example, by having enough medication on hand.
(This is to say nothing of the economic virus that the coronavirus has caused. An airline industry group estimates losses of anywhere between $63 billion and $110 billion due to cancelled trips and flights due to the virus and its disease -- and that’s just the airline industry.)
Through it all, it’s important to get the best information available, and to seriously consider the source of whatever else you read or hear. The CDC’s website — www.cdc.gov — is a good place to start for information, and to sort fact from fiction. A section of our website, which you’ll find on our homepage at www.salemnews.com, is also dedicated to the latest news about the coronavirus. As bad as this situation is, misinformation and the anxiety it engenders can only make matters worse.