Staying safe from COVID-19 in the U.S.: Wash hands, Chinese food, markets are safe

February 13th, 2020
staying safe from COVID-19 in the U.S. by washing your hands
One of the best ways in staying safe from COVID-19 is to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water. Photo: Getty Images.

How worried should you be about the new coronavirus, COVID-19? An expert on infectious diseases answers your COVID-19 questions.

The new virus continues to cause deaths, illnesses and major economic upheaval in China and around the world.

For all updates and to read more articles about the new coronavirus, please visit uchealth.org/covid19

While there’s much about COVID-19 that health officials don’t know yet, a UCHealth expert in infectious diseases, Dr. Michelle Barron, sets the record straight on commonly asked questions about the new coronavirus outbreak. Staying stafe from COVID-19 in the U.S. might not be as hard as one might think.

Can I get COVID-19 from Chinese food or Asian markets in the U.S.?

No, Barron says.

In Chinatowns and Asian restaurants and markets around the U.S., fears about coronavirus have caused customers to stay away. Here in Colorado, friends have asked Barron if they should skip Chinese food because of the new coronavirus outbreak.

The answer is an adamant “no.”

“Chinese food is cooked. These viruses don’t survive outside of the body. So, you can’t get them from Chinese food or Chinese markets in the U.S. Restaurants here are fine. They are regulated by health departments. If you’re getting food, heat will kill this. It can’t just hang out and survive,” she said.

Can the new coronavirus live for hours in the air and get me sick minutes or hours after an infected person has left the room?

No, Barron says.

Unlike a disease like measles that can live in the air for an extended period of time, coronaviruses are not transmitted through the air. Instead, these viruses, which also can cause relatively harmless and simple illnesses like a cold, travel through moist droplets.

“The droplets hang out on surfaces like door handles and cell phones. Those are great places for viruses to hang out. But, even on those surfaces, they dry out and die. They require humans or animals to survive,” Barron says.

The origin of COVID-19 is thought to have been a live animal at a market in Wuhan. A human may have eaten an infected animal or came into contact with animal droppings containing the new coronavirus, then gotten sick and spread the illness through droplets to others.

Barron says viruses use animals and humans to replicate.

“They require a host. Humans become a factory for them. In order to reproduce, they need you. They’re almost like a parasite. They can’t sit on a counter top and reproduce. They need a host to spread them,” she said.

Should I wear a mask?

There is a shortage of masks in America. If you are healthy, please conserve masks for people who are sick or providing care to someone who is sick.

Masks are sold out nearly everywhere. If you’re sick it’s best to stay home and avoid getting other people sick.

For those who are not sick, please follow these simple, but very effective guidelines:

  • Wash your hands with warm, soapy water as often as possible.
  • As much as possible, avoid touching your face.
  • Keep surfaces clean.
  • When you’re sick, stay home.
  • If you are ill, do not go to work or to places with large numbers of people, where you could spread the sickness.

Save the masks for health workers who are caring for people who are ill. Health workers get special training and equipment. Along with masks – worn fully over the nose and mouth and tucked under the chin – people caring for the sick wear gowns and gloves and are careful not to touch their faces or eyes with their hands.

How does COVID-19 spread? Can some people be ‘super-spreaders’?

It’s clear now that the new coronavirus is spreading from human to human. And, Dr. Barron said some people do become “super-spreaders” through no fault of their own. For some reason, they might sneeze farther or cough more vigorously and inadvertently be better at spreading the virus.

Barron compared a “super-spreader” to an opera singer. Most people can’t sing a variety of notes at a high volume or hold their breath long enough to make a note last an extended period of time. Perhaps an opera singer has better developed lungs. When it comes to viruses, some people may be like opera singers and might be especially talented hosts.

In addition, some people may be less likely to spread the illness because they might have dealt with a cousin of the new coronavirus in the past. They, therefore, might have some immunities built up in their bodies to fight it. Meanwhile “super-spreaders” might have no immunities and therefore could have significantly more of the virus in their bodies, and thus be more likely to spread it. At this point, the reason why someone is a “super-spreader” remains unknown.

Is COVID-19 contagious before a person is even sick?

Researchers are working to answer this question. It’s not clear yet, but some people say they had no fever or other symptoms before they later got sick and tested positive for COVID-19. In the meantime, some of these people appear to have transmitted the illness to other people.

But, Barron says, there’s no need to worry about “asymptomatic transmission” here in the U.S. at the moment. Anyone traveling from China now is being screened and is facing a 14-day quarantine period. Barron says coronavirus symptoms would show up during the quarantine period. She said it’s too soon to know if the quarantines and other restrictions on travel to the U.S. and other countries are necessary.

“The goal is to try to limit the spread of the virus,” Barron said.

Why do some people with COVID-19 get sicker than others?

As with all viruses, some people are more vulnerable than others. In general, people with suppressed immune systems or the very young and the very old are most likely to get sick.

Still, illnesses affect people differently, so health officials have much to learn about how COVID-19 is affecting people. For instance, Barron said, the H1N1 strain of the flu was particularly hard on relatively healthy people in their 20s.

“You need your immune system for protection, but sometimes the immune system can get tricked when you’re young. Instead of sending out the army, it sends out the nuclear weapons and a healthy person can get sicker than an 80-year-old. The 80-year-old might have some troops, but not the nuclear option,” Barron said.

If a young person’s body triggers the nuclear option, there can be collateral damage and they can get very, very sick.

Time will tell why COVID-19 has affected various people differently. Early reports indicated more deaths among older men. But, some younger people have also died. Among the most tragic was a 34-year-old Chinese doctor, Li Wenliang, who was punished for trying to warn people about the dangers of the new coronavirus when it first appeared in Wuhan.

Should I travel right now?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising against all travel to China, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Iran right now. With respect to other travel, Barron thinks people should make decisions based on their specific plans. For instance, if you have plans to go do a big hiking trip in Asia and you will be far from crowds, then your risk of traveling to a country with cases might actually be quite low.

On the other hand, traveling to densely populated cities right now in countries with lots of cases of COVID-19 might be more risky.

“It’s purely a personal decision, but it’s worth thinking about whether you’ll be in close proximity to someone who is sick. On a crowded subway, for instance, if someone is coughing, your chances of getting sick increase,” Barron said. However, keep in mind that most countries outside of China have not seen a significant number of cases and the CDC has not recommended against travel to other countries due to COVID-19 at this point.

Is COVID-19 seasonal like the flu? Will the illnesses slow down in the spring and summer?

Experts don’t know the answer yet, Barron said.

They expect to learn much more about this coronavirus in the coming weeks and months.

Is flu or coronavirus more dangerous for me now?

If you live in the U.S., you are more likely to get the seasonal flu than COVID-19 at this time. Barron advises everyone to get a seasonal flu shot.

But COVID-19 is now spreading throughout the U.S. and in Colorado, so it’s best to avoid large gatherings, especial if you are an older adult or your immunities are compromised.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.