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

Feb. 13, 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.

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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.

How does the new coronavirus spread?

The virus spreads primarily when people sneeze and cough.

“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.

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 Coloradan. 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 summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.