Can you catch coronavirus swimming? What about 5G? Debunking bizarre myths

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By Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, May 11 2020

Shawn Park (left) and UCSF medical student Hallen Pham walk at UCSF’s Parnassus Campus. The two have built a website that accurately debunks some of the myths about the coronavirus.Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Hallen Pham’s aunt stopped her daily dosage of Aleve to relieve her cancer pain for a solid week, which meant a solid week without sleep because the pain kept waking her up. On the eighth day, she contacted her niece, Pham, a fourth-year medical student at UCSF to ask if it was true what she had read, “that ibuprofen and similar medicine can make you more susceptible to the coronavirus and make you more sick if you get it.”

Pham said she would look into it, which she did, spending hours when she was not on hospital rotation tracing this myth to a tweet in French that has since been debunked. This misinformation and the misery it caused her own aunt irked Pham to the point that she organized a cavalry of 25 fellow UCSF med students to get online and debunk some of the most common coronavirus myths that had been shared through social media and messaging apps. They took their top 20 and built a website, COVID-19 Fact Check, which launched April 30.

“Someone misinterprets a study, and once that hits social media it spreads like wildfire,” said Pham, 26, who grew up in San Jose in a family of Vietnamese immigrants. Most of her cohorts come from families that do not speak English at home. So they made sure the facts shared on are in seven languages. “Most visitors are from the U.S., as we intended,” Pham said. “But, surprisingly, we have had visits from over 30 other countries now.”

Pham got her boyfriend, Shawn Park, a mobile app designer, to build the website. Most of their answers were distilled into simple language from information already posted by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The content is beautiful and simple and quite accurate,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the UCSF School of Medicine, who evaluated the website at The Chronicle’s request. “It is as good as the information put out by the CDC, if not better, because it is in seven languages.”

Jeff Hancock, a professor in the Department of Communications at Stanford University has studied the propagation of conspiracy theories and myths and notes that the effective ones are all attributed to a “reliable source” — a friend who is a doctor, or high up in the military, for example.

“They all sound crazy but also slightly plausible,” he said, noting that messaging apps are an important vehicle with the potential to supplant platforms like Facebook and even the president’s beloved Twitter, because the platforms cannot monitor these encrypted forms of communication.

Hancock was in the Stanford Media Lab, which he operates, when he received the shocking report, attributed to a Vancouver firefighter that “they shut down ice hockey so they could use all the rinks for dead bodies.” Because Hancock is both Canadian and a hockey player, he paused his lab work long enough to search out the ice rink rumor and find it had already been disproved. They were closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

Political rumors tied to the virus, like the one about President Trump invoking the Stafford Act to quarantine the entire nation for two weeks, were not addressed by Pham and her colleagues. As serious-minded medical students, they decided to avoid things like conspiracy theories promoted by radio talk-show propagandists. But Chin-Hong was willing to throw cold water on any coronavirus concept without a scientific foundation. What follows are some myths that have been debunked or rated as extremely doubtful by the COVID-19 Fact Check website or Chin-Hong.

And, about that Aleve claim: On Pham’s recommendation, meanwhile, her aunt is back to taking it and is sleeping through the night.

Myth: Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will kill the coronavirus.

Fact Check: False. Do not spray disinfectant alcohol or chlorine (bleach) all over your body because that is dangerous. According to WHO, “these substances can be poisonous if ingested and cause irritation and damage to your skin and eyes.” Bleach and disinfectant should only be used carefully to disinfect surfaces under appropriate recommendations.

Myth: The coronavirus can come up off the pavement on the soles of shoes and attack.

Fact check: “I like that one,” Chin-Hong said. “COVID is lazy. It is living in your nose and mouth and is super happy there. You sneeze and it will stay in that droplet and hit 3 feet away. I don’t know of any data that supports that someone has got it from the pavement. The probability is extremely small. You would have to rub your hands on the pavement and then put your fist in your mouth.”

Myth: The coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory and managed to escape.

Fact check: “There is no evidence of that at all,” Chin-Hong said. “When things are manufactured they are not as efficient as things that are natural. You can’t really hit it right. Nature is going to be much better than a lab technician in causing destruction.”

Myth: Self-medicating with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin will prevent COVID-19.

Fact check: Only take prescription medications as advised by a physician due to harmful drug interactions and dangerous side effects, said the COVID-19 Fact Check website. Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are orally prescribed medications for malaria and other inflammatory diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Both hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin are associated with cardiac side effects and could lead to life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia, where your heart beats dangerously fast.

Myth: Wearing a face mask will prevent the wearer from catching the virus.

Fact check: “The face mask is best conceptualized as preventing you from giving other people the virus. It reduces the risk but with that said, socially distancing is still the best thing,” said Chin-Hong. “People obsess about finding fragments of the virus in the rug or on the floor or in vents, but it is less anxiety-provoking to think about decreasing risks rather than all the possibilities in the universe for catching it. An N95 mask is not necessary in the community. Only in the hospital.”

Myth: Holding one’s breath for 10 seconds or longer without coughing or feeling discomfort is an accurate test for COVID-19.

Fact check: According to the CDC, you can have the coronavirus and have no symptoms and can also transmit the virus before showing any symptoms, reports the COVID-19 Fact Sheet website. As per WHO, “the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are dry cough, tiredness and fever. Some people may develop more severe forms of the disease, such as pneumonia. You cannot confirm it with this breathing exercise.”

Myth: Exposure to heat and sunshine kills the virus.

Fact check: “That comes from somebody up high saying that and the biological fact that these viruses wax and wane by the season,” Chin-Hong said. “COVID-19 likes cold better. But it likes people more than it likes weather so if enough people have it it is going to jump from person to person regardless of how hot it is.

Myth: Antibiotics are effective in preventing and treating COVID-19.

Fact check: According to WHO, antibiotics only treat infection caused by bacteria, not viruses. Antibiotics should not be used for prevention or treatment of viruses. However, if you are hospitalized for COVID-19, you may receive antibiotics because bacterial co-infection is possible.

Myth: The risks are higher of transmission from a person walking in the opposite direction on the sidewalk.

Fact check: “The probability is not high unless that person stops and talks to you and coughs in your face or spits on you. Plus, they have to have the COVID,” Chin-Hong said. “Minimal exposure is OK, but that is why stadiums are a bad idea. The virus is lazy, but when you are spending a lot of time next to a person the risk becomes cumulatively higher.”

Myth: The virus can be spread by the breath or spray of passing runners.

Fact check: “That is based on some studies that show that when people run they can project the virus further, but what is the probability that a runner passing by will actually have the virus?” Chin-Hong said. “Most of the spray is going to fall within 3 feet. It is theoretically possible, but what are the chances of me actually getting hit with it? Very, very small, less than 0.01%.”

Myth: Injecting disinfectant will kill the coronavirus.

Fact check: “That is one of the most horrific things you can imagine. People say things like that and it does have consequences,” Chin-Hong said, referencing President Trump mentioning this possibility during a press briefing. The “number of calls to poison control went up after that.”

Myth: Hand dryers and UV disinfection lamps are effective in killing the coronavirus.

Fact check: According to WHO, “hand dryers are not effective in killing the coronavirus. UV lamps should not be used to sterilize hands or other areas of skin as UV radiation can cause skin irritation.”

Myth: The coronavirus can be transmitted by household pets.

Fact check: “There is no evidence of that, and there are tons of people with pets,” Chin-Hong said. “If it were true, by now somebody with the coronavirus would have traced it to a pet. The pet is basically a surface. The virus can fall on the pet theoretically. But if you wash your hands after you touch the pet you get rid of it.” Though there have been confirmed reports of a dog in North Carolina and two house cats in New York testing positive for the virus, he is unconvinced. “I wonder how many animals actually get sick with it and are able to transmit it. Otherwise, animal fur, it is just like any other surface.”

Myth: Mortuaries are declaring non-COVID-19 deaths to be COVID-19 fatalities to inflate the numbers.

Fact check: “Conspiracy theory,” said Chin-Hong. “Why would anyone worry about that? It doesn’t move me. That’s just noise over the big picture.”

Myth: Eating garlic prevents COVID-19.

Fact check: According to WHO, garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the coronavirus.

Myth: The virus can live on a pole for three days, then leap out and attack.

Fact check: “We know the virus loves cold and hard more than warm and soft surfaces and poles are good for that,” Dr. Chin-Hong said. “But if you don’t touch your face and wash your hands it doesn’t matter where you find it, and don’t touch your face.”

Myth: COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the common flu.

Fact check: “That is scary,” Chin-Hong said. “On average, the mortality rate from COVID is 3% to 4% of the people who get it. The mortality rate from the flu is less than 0.1%.”

Myth: You can catch the virus in a swimming pool.

Fact check: “Only if you are swimming next to somebody who has COVID and is not wearing a mask,” said Chin-Hong. Synchronized swimming and water polo maybe. But not when swimming alone or not close to anyone.

Myth: COVID-19 symptoms are actually the effects of the new 5G high-speed mobile data service.

Fact check:“That’s my least favorite conspiracy theory. It is not based on any reality whatsoever,” Chin-Hong said. “The only thing it did was caused people in England to lose cell phone reception. I couldn’t make it have a scientific basis if I wanted to.”