Myths, germs and soap-vs-sanitizer: Things you ought to know about coronavirus

Toilet paper hoarding is an innocuous response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Tim Caulfield is more concerned about the so-called cures, treatments and prevention methods being circulated by agencies using the opportunity for personal gain.

'People taking advantage of the fear and the anxiety around the coronavirus'

Soap and water is the best defence against coronavirus, both on surfaces and on skin. But hand sanitizer is a boon when you've been touching your face and don't have access to a sink. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

You need only look as far as the empty toilet paper aisles to see how misinformation can lead to silly or unwise decisions, says a University of Alberta professor and health researcher.

"This is a really good example of social media, of people reacting in a horde mentality to a crisis," Tim Caulfield said Monday morning on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Toilet paper hoarding is an innocuous response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, said Caulfield.

He's far more concerned — infuriated, in fact — about the so-called cures, treatments and prevention methods being circulated by opportunistic individuals trying to cash in on mass fear and anxiety. 

"You're seeing stuff about homeopathic solutions that are supposed to help. No. Supplements that are supposed to help. No. Chiropractic adjustments that are supposed to help. No.

"So really, there is all this information out there [from] people taking advantage of the fear and the anxiety around the coronavirus."

Timothy Caulfield is a public health advocate concerned about the spread of misinformation. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

High doses of supplements can be harmful, in addition to being "a waste of money," Caulfield said. Products that claim to boost your immune system may seem like a great idea but "none of the products that are being sold can really assist your immune system in the way that they claim." 

How do I know what to believe?

Caulfield cited a Thailand study that found 75 per cent of coronavirus-related stories being circulated on social media channels were fake news, a situation being actively pursued by the Thai government.

"It highlights the degree to which the spread of misinformation on social media and pop culture more broadly is a real problem, and it's one that we've got to tackle," he said.

As the old adage goes, if something seems too good to be true, it probably isn't true. Caulfield urged seeking out information from trusted sources, like the Public Health Agency of Canada and the World Health Organization. 

The cycle of transmission is pretty straightforward, said Jason Tetro, an Edmonton-based microbiologist.

The virus lives in respiratory fluids. If an infected person coughs or sneezes, the germs contact nearby surfaces.

"[If you] touched a surface that was coughed on, like a kiosk or maybe even a bus pole, there's a chance that you may inoculate yourself by touching your face," he said. "That's essentially how the virus gets in.

"Then after that, it's really just a matter of whether the virus can establish a good enough infection to make you sick."

After the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, scientists worked hard and managed to keep the germs alive in a laboratory for more than 10 days. In the real world — especially in dry Alberta — coronavirus germs on a hard surface might hang around for a couple of days but will only be infectious for a few hours, he said.

Soft surfaces are a slightly different matter, where moisture in the material can keep germs lively longer. 

Soap: the simplest solution

Like toilet paper, disinfectants and hand sanitizer have been flying off store shelves. But people may be discounting the most effective solution of all: plain old soap and water.

The coronavirus is encased in a tiny envelope made of fat, so Tetro uses the analogy of cleaning greasy dishes to make his point.

"Something as simple as soap will be able to kill it because it just breaks it down," he said. "And then if you want to use something harder, that's great."

Microbiologist Jason Tetro says cleaning hands and surfaces with good old soap and water is key to preventing transmission. (Dave Macintosh/CBC)

(Yet another) face palm moment

We know, you can't stop touching your face. Tetro can't either. "It's not something that we can do without really, really thinking about it," he said. "You have to be in this crazy Zen state in order to not touch your face. I've tried."

That's where hand sanitizers prove their worth, he said. 

If you've just touched your face for the 16th time this hour (that's the average, according to Tetro), dig out the Purell.

"If you don't have a sink, then the alcohol hand sanitizers — 62 to 70 per cent, 15 seconds of staying wet on your hands — is going to make sure that not only the coronavirus, but pretty much every other bacteria and virus that could potentially cause you problems, will be gone."

But the toilet paper-people took all the hand sanitizer!

Don't fret, just make your own. Tetro shared a simple how-to handed down from his mom: mix rubbing alcohol with 10 per cent of glycerine, gel or some kind of lotion.

Dana Di Tomaso, Edmonton AM's regular technology columnist, noted that many online recipes are geared for giant-sized batches. She pointed out a Popular Science article that adapts the ingredients (isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, glycerin and water) to make a batch for personal use.

Tetro noted that advice currently being offered isn't just valid during the coronavirus outbreak but also for the long term.

"The message is not going to change when coronavirus is gone," he said. "Just follow those guidelines that we've been giving you and you'll be safe. Not only now but also far into the future."




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