Ask the experts: Q&A on COVID-19

Local News

A rendering of coronavirus via the CDC.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Many people have been asking questions on social media. WCIA put together a list of them, and asked public health administrators across central Illinois.

Answers came from health departments in Champaign-Urbana, Sangamon County, Macon County and Vermilion County.

How long does COVID-19 live on surface?

Julie Pryde, Champaign-Urbana: “It depends on so many things including what the surface is, what the air temperature is, what the humidity is, if there’s a light source. We’re basically telling people to, you know, wash your hands, and keep from touching your eyes, nose and mouth, because the specifics of how long it lives on a surface, we do know that there hasn’t really been any known transmissions that way. What’s really concerning is that people need to stay away from each other at least 6 feet and wear masks anytime you’re together.”

Gail O’Neill, Sangamon county: “We’ve been learning more about that. It’s not felt to live as long as we thought in the beginning… that’s why we want to do frequent cleaning on high-touch areas and to use the cleaners with the directions on them. I didn’t know in the beginning that there’s really periods of time that cleaners should sit on surfaces, and so you need to make sure you read the instructions on the materials…

Brandi Binkley, Macon county: “It depends on the type of surface. There’s some really great resources about this on the CDC’s website and I know that there was even some guidance that came out about this that talked about maybe it didn’t live on surfaces as long or it wasn’t a way for the virus to be transmitted than they originally thought. The problem with that that I would love to speak onis that a lot of people saw that article or saw that headline and took that as oh we don’t have to worry about surfaces anymore at all, so we started getting a lot of questions. We certainly want people continue to be very careful about any frequently touched surfaces, but making sure those are cleaned and disinfected and if you’re in a public space, touching any kind of surfaces that you ensure that when you do have the ability to wash your hands that you do that and if you don’t have access to soap and water, that you do use some kind of antibacterial hand cleaner.”

Douglas Toole, Vermilion county: “We know it lives on for a while. My understanding, and our understanding of this disease is fairly new and developing quickly, is that it can live on a surface for a while, but maybe not be contagious on that surface for a while, so even though it is possible to have the disease transmitted to you by touching a handrail or a doorknob or some commonly touched surface, it’s much more likely that you’re gonna get it directly from another person. so we’re concerned about the commonly touched surfaces but more concerned about that person-to-person transmission.”

Are false positives or negatives an issue?

Pryde: “With this test that’s being used, the PCR test, there aren’t really false positives. They’re not really a concern. What is a concern, with this type of test is a false negative, so we do know that about 20% of the results that come back are false negative, meaning that the people are possibly, well they would be infected, so that’s why when you see someone placed in quarantine, you can’t test out of quarantine because of that margin of error. We have to make sure that people stay in quarantine for the full 14 days.”

O’Neill: “I think when people hear they’ve been exposed to someone, they want to run out and test, and we are trying to encourage people to get a good test, you need to let at least 4 days pass from the time you might have been exposed to that person or the last exposure. Getting a test too early could be a false negative.”

Binkley: “I can’t necessarily speak on false positives. We have had some people who I can say that they went and got tested. They know that they were exposed in some situation, so they went and got tested either because they chose to or someone recommended that they did and they had a negative test result, but then eventually or very soon after in some cases with in a couple of days, they then started having symptoms, went and got retested and then were positive. We are doing our contact tracing here in Macon county that we are expressing to people that they don’t necessarily need to immediately go get tested when they find out that they are a close contact but that they should definitely self-monitor, keep an eye on their symptoms and then go get tested if they develop symptoms. We also strongly recommend they update their healthcare provider and let them know that they have been in close contact, because their healthcare provider has their medical history and would be able to give guidance specific to their medical history and experience with that person, whereas we have just a snapshot.”

“When you do get a negative, there are some limitations with that. One would be that there are false positives and the other would be if someone does get tested and they have a negative, there’s a chance that there’s just not a high enough viral load yet in their system to be detected and to be showing up as a positive, so if they had been in close contact, they’ve been told to quarantine, they’ve been told they can test, that they have that option. Even if they test and get a negative result that doesn’t mean that they’re not carrying and shedding the virus and possibly infecting other people.”

“People do not get released from quarantine if they have a negative test, because there are limitations to test results. Nothing is 100% perfect, and if we could take every precautionary measure possible, like quarantining, that’s very important that we do that.”

Toole: “It hasn’t been a direct issue. I know people are concerned about that sort of thing. Like, I went in and I tested negative, but I still feel crummy or I tested positive and I feel fine, so there must be something wrong with the test. The idea of it being asymptomatic or the fact that COVIS-19 symptoms can be a number of other things has been confusing for people.”

Has the virus mutated? Are symptoms changing? Where did it come from? Are there different strains?

Pryde: “Of course, there are plenty of people who are looking at the genomes of this virus, but what we do know is that what’s spreading around in the U.S., in our area as well is the strain that came from Italy or came from Europe, so that’s where it looks like most of our outbreak started from in this country.”

O’Neill: “At this point I’m not aware of that. I think it’s changing all the time, but I don’t think, scientifically it could have. It could change today, but the methods of transmission seem to be person to person droplet air exposure to people.”

Binkley: not comfortable speaking on that

Toole: “I haven’t really heard that. It did make a big mutation at the beginning to be able to jump to people. I’ve not heard for sure that it’s gone through a second mutation. What confuses people, certainly about the symptoms, is that well some people will be asymptomatic, but what we keep hearing is that fever and that awful cough with the shortness of breath and really what they’re finding is that’s about two-thirds of the people who contract it who show symptoms are gonna have a fever and a cough. You could have a bizarre set of symptoms, you know, a headache, a rundown feeling and diahrrea, and that could be COVID-19.”

Why are COVID restrictions so intense? Comparing the fatality/recover/symptoms to other issues like H1N1, Flu, cold, etc…

Pryde: “First of all, it’s a novel virus, so that means no one has any immunity to it, and it does have a, you know, it’s super, super infectious and it does have a significant number of deaths associated with it. I mean when you look at how many people have died in the 6 months or so since this has been really spreading around the U.S., 160,000 people, plus and that’s increasing every single day. That is an enormous amount of death associated with this virus. We also know that it’s likely that it’s undercounted because you don’t even know at the beginning for all we know we were having spread last year during flu season there was no test available for it. It is concerning especially going into fall and winter, why this is SO concerning is because normally in a year we can have our healthcare systems really stressed due to influenza or flu and that’s a vaccine preventable disease, so if we think about having our hospitals already streched to capacity with flu going around and then adding this on top of that, you see that we would very easily be able to get into a situation where our healthcare systems could be overwhelmed in this country. Indeed, right now during the summer, hospital systems all over the country in the states where it’s really peaking right now there hospital systems are overwhelmed, and that is what we have to prevent.”

O’Neill: “We don’t know a lot about this, and we’ve been learning a lot since the beginning. We’ve seen this come across the country and throughout the world as an illness that affects a lot of people and it can take lives, but it is something that’s spread person to person so it’s had a lot of attention.”

Binkley: “There are a lot of things about COVID-19 that we still don’t know. Scientists have been researching COVID-19 diligently, public health experts, medical experts, epidemiologists. We’re all doing everything we can as quickly as we possibly can but there’s a couple of things about COVID-19, or the virus that causes COVID-19. First of all it’s a novel coronavirus, so there’s not herd immunity to it, there’s not a vaccine, we don’t know all of the longterm implications that come along with having COVID-19. They’re finding more and more about possible longterm implications that can be experienced by adults and children. I know early on in this COVID response, there were so many people that, and they still do have this misconception that this is just something that affects older people in the population and that’s absolutely not true.”

“Across the state and across here in Macon county too we are seeing higher and higher numbers, including higher numbers of children, and we don’t know what all can happen, especially with a child if they experience having COVID-19, so even if people don’t have a severe case of it there could still be these longterm effects that they are finding and seeing that could be lifelong ailments that they may experience, so when people say it’s just like a cold or it’s just like a flu, some people might have a less severe experience with it, which is great, but there’s so much that we don’t know and there are so many people infecting one another, there are so many people not taking it seriously that it’s a very dangerous combination right now for not only what we’ve seen so far with this coronavirus but what we are probably going to see.”

Toole: “Seasonal flu, as terrible as it is, really has been around for a while, and we have a bit of familiarity with it, so seasonal flu comes around and sometimes it’s not that bad, and sometimes it is bad, but folks are kind of used to that, and it’s horrible that we could lose tens of thousands of people every year to seasonal flu, and just say like well it’s just one more thing. This is a new virus, so we’re still learning about it. We don’t know how bad it’s gonna be and the death toll for the amount of time it’s been around, it seems very aggressive. It also seems to get passed, the transmission rate is also pretty high, and that’s frightening for us. As this is getting into people’s bodies, what’s it doing to them? With the flu we’ve had years and year of time to study it and get used to it and predict some of its behaviour and it’s harder to do with a new virus.”

Is there any way to see how many people are being admitted to hospital ICUs, ERs, walk-in clinics; and how many of those people need ventillators?

Pryde: “We have that information and we can get that information through the hospital data, but we don’t have that or are reporting on that. You know, the standard of care that they’re doing has changed somewhat, so they’re always going to be improving treatments as we go along and more information is found out, but that is not something that we report on, but it is reported if you look in our data on the website where you can go in and look at our county specific data related to restore Illinois or region 6 specific data, you will be able to see that.”
“It’s not just covid-related ventilators, it would be ventilators for anything, so obviously whether it’s flu or needed it for surgery or something, we do not want to risk having those, having that resource used up.”

O’Neill: “The hospitals report all the time to the Illiois Deparment of Public Health about their status on how many ventilators they have available and ICU beds. We keep track of how many residents of sangamon and menard county are hospitalized and how many of them are still testing positive. We kind of just keep track of who’s in and who’s out, not whether they’re on a ventilator and our numbers from the hospital still have us with enough ICU beds and ventilators available to take care of us if the need arises.”

Binkley: “We are keeping track of that. We do have a very close relationship in our community, not only with the hospitals, but with the local FQHC’s…We not only serve the residents of Decatur and surrounding areas like Mt. Zion, Forsyth, Warrensburg, but also some of these even further out smaller towns where they don’t have a hospital closer, so they do come to this community, so we are serving not only Macon county, but some of these other surrounding counties and the people that need somewhere to go to be taken care of, so it’s certainly being watched. We report our hospitalization numbers every day of the week.”

Toole: “I’m sure the hospital holds on to that information. We do keep track of the folks who are hospitalized, but while our nursing staff does keep track of how the people are doing, we do check in with them regularly after they test positive, either them or their family members. We are watching that sort of thing.”

Should people be tested for the anti-body since some people are asymptomatic?

Pryde: “At this time, really no, there’s really no need for that, because we can’t make any decisions based upon it, so you can’t change your behavior just because you found out that you may have already had COVID. The reason why you can’t do that is because we still don’t know for sure what that means. We don’t know if you can get it again, we don’t know if you have immunity, we don’t know if you may get it the second time and it could be worse, we just don’t know, so until the science catches up with that, there’s really no point in doing the antibody testing because it’s not actionable…Public health, we’re not gonna change any of our recommendations based upon that, and individuals should not alter their behavior in anyway as well.”

O’Neill: “Antibody testing isn’t widely available yet. It may be. There’s still questions about the antibodies, you know, we may find them in peoples systems, which means that they’ve been exposed at some point, but whether those anitbodies can protect them against future viruses we’re not sure. We’re not sure how, you know, if they’re active antibodies, if they’re just a reaction, those things we’re learning as well. Like a lot of the illnesses where you get a vaccine and you get enoug antibodies that you should be able to not get infected with that virus again. We don’t know that about COVID yet.”

Binkley: “What we’ve heard from IDPH is that the science is not completely there to show that even if someone has had the antibodies that they would be immune to COVID-19 or to possibly ever have it again, so we are not currently doing a big push in Macon county for people to get the antibody testing, just because again I think that there have been so many things with COVID-19 that have given people a false perception of security and I almost feel like the antibody test could possibly do that as well, so until that science is there, until IDPH tells us, hey the science is there, we recommend people get this done, then we can determine how many people actually have built up immunity to it and where we’re at in that herd immunity number, then we are going to kind of just stay where we’re at status quo wise with that information.”

Toole: “With the antibody test, the question becomes, what is this telling us? Because what we don’t know at this point is once you’ve had COVID-19, can you get it again later in life? Can you get it again in a few months? So just become someone has had the disease, doesn’t really tell, it gives us a better idea of where it is in the community, but it’s not telling us that individual okay now that you’ve had it, you’re not gonna get it again. We don’t know if this is like something you can only get once in your life or something you get maybe twice in your life, or like a cold, something you can get multiple times over the course of the year.”

Are asymptomatic people less likely to spread the virus?

Pryde: “Usually, when we say sombody is asymptomatic, what we’re really talking about is pre-symptomatic, although some are actually, they never do develop any symptoms, but no they are just, they are also spreading it and we know this, that people are spreading it up to two days before any symptoms develop and that’s why it’s such an insidious virus, because you know if you get knocked down with the flu you, you’re not getting up and running around because you’re miserable, you’re really sick and you’re down. You know right when you get it and then you start being infectious, but with this you can be perfectly fine two days before you get any symptom development and you’re still infectious and you’re still spreading it. That’s why universal masking and distancing is so key with this virus. You can’t wait until you are sick or you think you’re sick or you’ve tested positive or anything like that.”

O’Neill: “Well not really, the asymptomatic means they don’t feel sick, and that’s kind of the ones where we’re worried about spreading in the community because they don’t know that they have been, you know, potentially spreading the virus because the virus has spread a few days generally before illness sets in, so it’s difficult for people that are asymptomatic had no idea that means they had no symptoms so they had no idea that they should test or that they should have been you know protecting other people from them, which is why it’s a good idea to have masks on people because asymptomatic people will be protecting everybody from themselves.”

Binkley: “What I can say is they’re definitely, you know, unintentionally, but a dangerous part of the COVID-19 problem and equation is that it’s very scary to know that a lot of people out there that do have this virus and are shedding this virus and that’s why it is incredibly important again to take those preventative measures, even if they don’t want to, or even if they feel like they’d be fine if they got it. This is not just for them but for the people that they go around or the organiztions, the businesses that they visit, so it’s very important people do that…Another thing that we have been saying since the beginning is that everyone should just assume that they have COVID-19, assume that others have COVID-19 and behave accordingly, so if i’m assuming I have COVID-19 and maybe I’m an asymptomatic carrier, then I’m wearing my mask, I’m washing my hands constantly, I’m staying away from people, I’m not going within 6 feet. I’m not attending gatherings. If I’m assuming that other people have COVID-19, I’m doing the same thing. I’m gonna stay back from them. I’m not gonna take food that they have prepared or served to me. I’m gonna make sure I’m washing my hands I’m gonna keep my mask on. I’m gonna ask them to have a mask on if I’m visiting with them in any capacity. I think that’s just a really good mentality to have. If there’s asymptomatic people out there walking around or pre-symptomatic people out there walking around who could infect others, who then could infect others and so on, that’s a dangerous situation, but if we all just pretend that we have it and take those precautionary measures, then we’re definitely gonna help save some of that spreading and we’re gonna save some lives.”

Toole: “Still not sure on that one.”

Is the virus affecting certain people more? Are people with a certain blood type or are men/women more likely to be hospitalized?

Pryde: “I honestly can’t answer that, because that’s more information that’s still being looked at…”

O’Neill: “I think right now it’s pretty evenly divided on the male and female, I’d have to look at our data. I don’t know about the blood types. I haven’t heard that we are studying that yet. From our end until it’s studied a whole lot more, it’s just name, age, what would be on a lab form. An option we don’t even have placed on there so there’s some, a little bit of holes in the data that we get, so we do try to fill those in and learn a little bit more about who might be at risk. That would help us a lot if certain people were more likely to catch the virus, but we don’t know that at this point.”

Binkley: “In Macon county, we do have a higher percentage of females than males, we do have like I mentioned that growing number of children, which I think is really important for us to touch upon right now especially with children getting ready to go back to school in some districts and also the fact that you do see a lot of peopple including with their children or their children primarily gathering in groups. That’s something that really bothers me just because even though we’re techinically allowed to gather in a group of up to 50 people, it doesn’t mean it’s the responsible thing to do. It also doesn’t mean that we could ignore social distancing and wearing a mask or face covering.”

“In our county, because of the numbers kind of significantly increasing the way that we have seen them doing and the positivity rate increasing the way that it has, I’m encouraging people not to gather in groups at all. I don’t think that it’s a responsible choice right now. The numbers of people when they are talked to during contact tracing, we are finding that people have been around a lot of people, so then that’s more people that need quarantine who have possibly been out infecting others while we’ve been waiting for test results and while we’ve been getting ready to initiate the contact tracing process, so if you just don’t go around groups or you just stay away from people and you don’t stay within 6 feet for greater than 15 minutes, you’re drastically reducing that risk that you are posing, not only for yourself but for others.”

“As parents and as adults, we are setting the tone for children, whether they are teenage or young adult children or very young children, they see what we do, they see our attitude and mentality about this, they see how we feel about compassion for others and whether it’s wearing a mask or choosing not to gather. Even though it’s hard and it’s sad to not be able to gather, this time I understand that, we have to show them that that is the selfless and compassionate thing to do.”

“Now’s the time in our lives that we get to be the heroes that we all grow up dreaming that we wish we could be. What can I do to be a hero and help save others and literally possibly save people’s lives? And there are really some simple things people can do right now that can have that impact.”

Toole: “In our community, it seems to hit men and women about equally and we’re not seeing a particular group that’s especially suceptible to getting it. Now, once they get it, it tends to hit seniors a lot harder and those who already have or are immunocompromised, it hits them harder once they get it, but it seems to be pretty evenly distributed as far as who’s getting the disease.”

Are we immune from the virus once we recover from it?

Pryde: “What recovered means essentially is that the case is no longer in isolation or hospital or something like that. It doesn’t mean that you’re not still having symptoms. It means you’re no longer infectious, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not still having symptoms. We’ve known people who have gone a month or longer still having symptoms, still having extreme fatigue or various other problems, on oxygen, things like that so recovered really means something that they’re no longer active case and for public health an active case is someone who’s currently infectious and in isolation.”

O’Neill: “Oh, I don’t know. We don’t know that yet.”

Binkley: “We are actually not using the term recovery. We’re using the term released from isolation, and we decided that very early on. That was what we were going to say instead of recovered, because when someone’s released from isolation, they are not necessarily 100% recovered. They are not necessarily no longer experiencing any symptoms. They have to meet different criteria, which the criteria has changed over the course of the COVID-19 response, and that again comes from IDPH, so in order for someone to be released from isolation it would’ve had to have been at least 10 days from the onset of symptoms, plus they have to be fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever reducing medication, plus they have to see an improvement of symptoms. We cannot say when someone has had an improvement of symptoms, that they 100% have been recovered. They are not seen as being infectious anymore which is how they could be released from isolation, but we can’t say they’re recovered…We felt that it would be not 100% accurate to say the word recovered in our reporting.”

Toole: “That’s an excellent question and I can’t wait to find out the answer to that.”

Can we spread it once we recover?

Pryde: “It does not appear that that is the case, so when you are infectious, we have criteria before we will release you from isolation, and then after that, it is presumed that you are not. Now, can you get reinfected at another time? That’s something that’s still to be determined. It appears that some people do…It’s only been around for months. It hasn’t even been around for a full year yet, so they are learning stuff about it every single day.”

O’Neill: “Once we’re recovered we’re not supposed to be able to spread it anymore. I know that sometimes, in the beginning, people were talking about having people not being able to go back to work or doing anything until they had a negative test, but some people that we had been doing that with and watching their status. Some people carry the virus in their system for quite a bit longer, so they might have had a positive test and been through their 14 days quarantine, isolation, and we would consider them non-infectious anymore. However, the virus stays in their system and they keep getting positive tests, but that doesn’t mean they’re infectious that they just continue to be positive.”

Binkley: “To my current knowledge, there is not science to show that. That kind of goes along with the antibody question, we don’t even know 100% at this time that someone would not be able to get it again or would have immunity.”

Toole: “The transmission rate drops pretty significantly once we’re recovered from the disease. One CDC study said that even people who were, who really had a severe case of this, may have even required hospitalization, after 15 days, the chance of transmission dropped to like 5% and they were not aware of anyone 20 days after diagnosis was able to transmit the disease on.”

What are the long-term effects of all these anti-bacterial agents we’re using?

Pryde: “Well I definitely wouldn’t recommend breathing in anything like that. Those are for surfaces, so you have to read and follow label directions…”

O’Neill: “Certainly, we want to make sure that people have air movement in the rooms they’re in and if they noticed an irritant to step away and let it, you know, not be in a big fog, and I think people are thinking about that a bit more. If it makes it difficult to breathe, it’s not a good idea.”

Binkley: “That’s out of my expertise, but what I can say about that is that we definitely stress people to use cleaners and disinfectants that are effective against the coronavirus. We also encourage them to make sure they are actually following the label instructions, so that it’s not only effective but also so that it doesn’t possibly hurt someone. You don’t want a cleaner to be so potent that it hurts someone or be used in an improper way as we have seen that happen already. It needs to be used appropriately in order for it to not have those negative effects.

Toole: “I would certainly be reading the instructions on the side of any sort of disinfectant you’re using, and it’s good information to have because some of them, I know, I help clean, but I’m not very patient about the whole thing and then you read the side of these things. It’s like oh, once I spray this stuff on I have to let it sit for 2-4 minutes before I wipe it off for it to really get in there and do it’s work. It’s important to read the labels on a lot of these things and say okay what’s the best use of this because spraying it on and wiping it off right away isn’t doing a whole lot.”

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