The Pitt Prescription: Common questions about COVID-19

The Pitt Prescription is a bi-weekly blog where student pharmacist and senior staff writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college.

While I was home in Chicago for spring break, conversations with friends and family often turned to the new coronavirus. As a pharmacy student, I often had to explain that the coronavirus can easily be confused with the flu, especially in younger people. Chicago had some cases of the coronavirus while I visited, so it’s understandable that people were worried they had it. However, as of then, it was unlikely.

Since then, I have been getting texts from friends all around the United States wondering if their symptoms meant they had the virus — and each time I had to tell them it was unlikely. However, I told them it’s always smart to check with a health care professional and not just a student pharmacist using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as my primary resource.

The World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11. This classification occurs when an infectious disease spreads throughout several communities, countries or continents oftentimes with an unstable rate of growth.

WHO coined the abbreviation COVID-19, which stands for “coronavirus disease 2019,” in February to describe the disease caused by a novel coronavirus that arose in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. There are many different coronaviruses that can cause disease in both humans and/or animals, including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome but this is a novel coronavirus, which means it has not been previously identified in humans.

Scientists believe that the virus causing COVID-19 originated in an animal and mutated to be able to infect humans. It is not common that an animal coronavirus can spread to humans, but there are other illnesses like MERS and SARS which resulted from coronaviruses originating in animals. There is a lot of misinformation circulating around so I am going to address some common questions below.

According to the CDC, approximately 3% to 11% of the US population is infected with influenza every year, and over the past 31 years, annual influenza related deaths have ranged from 3,300 to 49,000. The numbers for COVID-19 infections and death in the US are much smaller at this point. Why is everybody so worried? 

Many people are worried because COVID-19 is a new disease and not much is known about it — including the exact fatality rate, although there have been about 5,700 deaths out of about 153,000 cases as of Sunday evening. Scientists and researchers are working diligently to uncover more information about the virus and its properties, but this will take time. And while there’s a yearly vaccine currently available for the flu, there is not yet an approved vaccine for COVID-19 and there likely will not be one soon due to the amount of testing needed to approve a new vaccination. COVID-19 also appears to be more easily spread than the flu, with a reproductive number of 2 to 2.5 — meaning one case of COVID-19 has the potential to lead to 2 to 2.5 more cases.

What is the best way to prevent getting sick from COVID-19 or any flu virus?

The CDC has several recommendations to best prevent catching a virus. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid exposure — which is why social distancing is such an important aspect of prevention. Avoid close contact with others, especially with anyone who is sick, wash your hands often and avoid touching your face. Some people may be infected with COVID-19 but not show any symptoms, which means they are “carriers.” Even if they are asymptomatic, contact with them can cause others to get sick and show symptoms. If you yourself are sick, STAY HOME. COVID-19 can present as other illnesses and due to its easy transmission, if you are sick, you should stay away from others and public places. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and wear a face mask when around others. Clean commonly touched surfaces on a regular basis with disinfectant. 

What are the symptoms of COVID-19, and if you think you may have the flu or coronavirus, what should you do?

COVID-19 presents similarly to the common flu, with symptoms reported as mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough (usually dry) and difficulty breathing. If you think you have the flu or coronavirus, you can call your health provider and talk with them. They will tell you if they think you need to come in to be seen. UPMC is offering a test for the novel coronavirus on referral from a doctor, but testing is mainly reserved for “select, symptomatic cases.” If you’re sick and any of your symptoms worsen or become life-threatening, then calling 911 or going to the emergency room is recommended. 

What products can I use to disinfect and keep myself healthy?

Soap is the best option for getting rid of viruses. The CDC recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds after being in public, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If you are unable to use soap, hand sanitizer is an option, but it should be at least 60% alcohol and you should cover your hands with it completely and rub it in until dry. It is not necessary to have a antibacterial soap as COVID-19 is a virus, not a bacteria. Additionally, consistent use of antibacterial soap can promote drug-resistant bacteria growth on your hands. As for disinfectants, most common household disinfecting products will work.

Who is at highest risk for being infected with COVID-19? Does it seem to cause more severe illness in certain patient populations?

Some populations have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 as well as suffering from significantly worse side effects. Older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes are at the top of the list. While younger populations seem not to get hit as hard, they can still be COVID-19 carriers and transmit them to the at-risk populations — another reason why social distancing is vital.

Will the flu shot protect you against COVID-19?

Unfortunately, the flu shot will not protect you from getting COVID-19 because it is caused by a different virus than the flu.

Why are schools, gyms and other establishments closing? Isn’t this overkill? 

Many establishments are closing to promote the idea of social distancing. Social distancing is the best way to avoid coming into contact with infected people. Since COVID-19 is so easily spread, large crowds or gatherings are a great breeding ground for this disease. It is spread through person-to-person contact as well as droplets coming from infected people (that could possibly remain on surfaces like door handles or cell phones). While these closures may seem over the top, there is no way to know if we are truly overreacting because this is just the beginning.

The United States does not have as significant of an outbreak as other countries, so why are we taking these precautions?

More cases of COVID-19 are likely to be identified in the coming days, and the CDC expects that widespread transmission will occur. Unfortunately, the CDC predicts that in the next couple of months, the majority of the U.S. population will be exposed to COVID-19. This means many people may get sick, resulting in schools, childcare and workplaces shutting down. Public health systems may become significantly overloaded with patients. We may see elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths and the accompanying critical infrastructure like law enforcement and emergency medical services may be affected as well. This is why social isolation and all precautionary measures are important.

These measures are not necessarily going to stop the spread of the disease completely, but they will “flatten the curve.” The Washington Post has a great simulation of this. When uncontrolled, the number of cases will continuously rise until a peak number and then slowly decline. When precautions are put in place, the peak is significantly lowered which means our health care system will be less bombarded and there could be more control over the situation.

Why are people buying large quantities of toilet paper? Should we buy our groceries and household necessities in bulk? 

There is no real reason people are buying large quantities of toilet paper and household necessities other than fear. There is a lot of misinformation circulating and the situation is scary because it is uncommon and unfamiliar. However, that being said, you should NOT bulk buy groceries or other household necessities because it causes mass panicking and it directly harms those who are unable to afford buying in bulk and need to budget for weekly grocery trips rather than one large one.

It’s understandable and valid to be nervous about this situation — concern is normal. However, it is important to realize that following the CDC recommendations is the best way to protect yourself and others.

School cancellations may be exciting for some, but it is not an excuse to go out and party in large groups. The whole point is to isolate to prevent the spread of the virus. If you decide to go against these recommendations because you think that it’s not serious and it’s “just like the flu” then you are not only endangering yourself, but your entire community, especially high-risk people (like grandparents or people with cancer). There will be time to party and socialize with large groups in the future when a global pandemic is not occurring, so please be smart about your actions and think about how they may affect others.

This story has been updated to reflect public health guidance as of April 2021.