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Your Coronavirus Questions, Answered By The Experts

WBUR is fielding questions from our listeners and readers on the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19, the disease spread by the virus.

And we want to hear from you. From the most general to the most particular, right down to the most personal — you can submit your questions here. (All questions will be published on our air and website anonymously, unless you explicitly grant permission for us to reveal your name.)

While we cannot promise to answer all of your inquiries, we will do our best to bring many of them to the attention of health officials, scientists and other experts in the know.

You might just hear your particular question answered, when you tune in to WBUR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can also read a selection of the answers below.

Your Questions Answered:

Tuesday, April 28:

Dr. Davidson Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at the Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine and infectious disease specialist at the Boston Medical Center, answered audience questions on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Question: "I would really like to see my mother for Mother's Day and want to figure out a safe way to do it. If we wear masks, stay six feet apart and don't share food or bathrooms, would that work? Should we try to meet outside if the weather permits?"

Hamer: "I think it could be done with those measures. I would also be really cautious with with, you know, hand hygiene and touching any surfaces and cleaning surfaces that have touched the household. You know, you can be outside if the weather is permissible, that's much better because the airflow is better there. I think the concern is that an aerosol, if you happen to be infected and didn't know it, then you generate an aerosol even through a mask; it may not block all the particles that could could be infected. And ... those small particle aerosols can spread even further than six feet. So being in a well aerated room or outside will decrease that risk."

Tuesday, April 21:

Dr. Hamer answered audience questions on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Question: "Is it safe to visit with someone who is not part of your own isolated household if you remain outdoors and at least 6 feet away?"

Hamer: "Yes. I mean, especially outdoors. ... There are air currents outside. You know, if there's any aerosol that contains the virus, it should be diffused fairly quickly. We now know that the 6-foot rule really relates to respiratory droplet transmission, which is a form of transmission with large droplets that come out both through breathing and coughing or sneezing. But the reality is, there are smaller droplets [aerosols] that can spread even further. So 6 feet alone may not be protective. But being outside where there's good circulation of air should be fine."

Monday, April 13:

Dr. Hamer answered audience questions on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Question: "Are there indicators beyond age and preexisting conditions that can help determine the severity of COVID-19 symptoms?"

Hamer: "That's a good question. We've been trying to understand what risk factors increase ... the severity; and it's still confusing because some people, even older people sometimes, will have a very mild upper respiratory tract symptom or syndrome. ... Whereas other, you know, younger people may end up being quite ill. One preexisting condition that's been shown both in Europe and the United States as increasing the risk is being overweight, or in particular, being obese. That's an additional one that was not shown in China. But beyond that, there are no clear additional preexisting conditions that have been defined yet."

Question: "How long will we have to continue self-isolating in our homes?"

Hamer: "Unfortunately it's going to persist for a while. ... I think that our peak may be extended over one to two weeks and then it's going to be a long tail. So we may be looking at staying in our homes well into May, if not into early June."

Question: "When I go out of the house, is it good to use or reuse an older surgical mask or should I rely on a new homemade cloth mask?"

Hamer: "An older surgical mask when it's used too much will end up ... becoming dirty and potentially contaminated on the outside if you're really exposed to two people with COVID-19. So probably best not to keep reusing an old mask. A cloth mask is slightly less effective than a surgical mask, but you can wash it and we recommend washing on a regular basis like even once a day or every every few days, ideally."

Wednesday, March 25:

Prof. Michael Mina is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard specializing in immunology and infectious diseases. His research focuses on understanding the life history of infectious pathogens and he answered questions from WBUR listeners.

Question: "How did other recent novel coronavirus outbreaks, like SARS and MERS, end? I know that not a high-enough proportion of the population became infected to confer ‘herd immunity,’ so why did these outbreaks die out?”

Mina: "The manner in which SARS and MERS spread was driven by what we call "super-spreaders," and these are individuals or events where one or a small number of individuals spread [the virus] to a very large number of other people. That type of spread can ... be very dangerous. It can lead to very large outbreaks. But it also means that an outbreak that is occurring has a greater likelihood of potentially going extinct in a region — not transmitting to additional people — and that's very different from this particular virus, where we're finding that [COVID-19] seems to be spreading from anyone who's been infected. [With COVID-19] it's more of an average, where each person really does go and infect maybe two or three other people. And that makes this a more challenging virus to potentially get under control once it has spread to too many people."

Question: “Does the data from these outbreaks [SARS an MERS] give us an idea — or model — for how the current outbreak may progress or end?"

Mina: "One of the biggest defining features of this outbreak so far, has really been the lack of data we have, at least in the United States. Our testing has been woefully inadequate to be able to tell us where we are at in this epidemic. We don't have a good denominator, meaning we don't know how many people have actually been infected or exposed to the virus."

Question: “The flu generally dies down in the summer months, when it goes to the southern hemisphere. What is the likelihood that COVID-19 will also die down in June, July, and August?” 

Mina: "We do see that with other coronaviruses — the seasonal coronaviruses; they  have a seasonal peak that usually goes down in the summer and up in the winter months. And so we hope that the summer will give us some respite to the number of infections. The problem here, though, is that we have such an enormous pool of susceptible people that might overwhelm any impact of seasonality. We can also look to other, warmer places where this virus has already circulated and we see that that the summer months don't necessarily mean this virus will be going away on its own."

Question: “Are we potentially facing a situation where COVID-19 evolves seasonally, like the flu?"

Mina: "This virus hasn't been around for long enough to really know how likely it is to mutate, and drift away from year to year,  so that we'd have to regain immunity each time we got exposed to it, as we do the flu. And it's not a great comparison; the flu virus has a lot of mechanisms in terms of how its genome is encoded, which actually give it a different ability, if you will, to mutate more rapidly than this new coronavirus. So in general, we're hoping and anticipating that [the novel coronavirus] won't mutate in quite the same way, but we're really not sure.

"Also, this virus hasn't yet been challenged through "bottlenecks." And what I mean by that is, if we discovered a vaccine and started vaccinating for this virus, for example, and everyone were vaccinated, at that point we might end up seeing that just one or a small number of mutations could figure out how to escape that vaccine-derived immunity. But we just haven't been able to put it under that kind of pressure yet, to really present such a capacity in terms of the vaccine."

Click here for more from Michael Mina on the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Monday, March 23:

Dr. Hamer answered audience questions on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Question: “If someone is exposed, and they quarantine for two weeks, when or how do they know if they can interact with society again?”

Hamer: "Two weeks is, as far as we know, the full extent of the incubation of the virus and if they've had no symptoms in two weeks, then then they should be fine going back to interacting with people again."

Question: “If a person is infected with COVID-19, does that person build up immunity?”

Hamer: "Yes, as far as we know. But again, this remains an open question. For other coronaviruses — the ones that cause seasonal common cold and upper-respiratory track infections — there's evidence that those can circulate every two or three years and then it's possible to be re-infected. With this virus, we don't know that re-infection is possible, although there's some suggestion of that happening in a few cases in China. So we really need to have a lot more information on the natural history of the disease and also how protective immunity is."

Question: "What are the recommendations for handling groceries after we've brought them home? Also, newspapers, mail and packages."

Hamer: "Anything that's coming into your house that has a wrapper on it ... I think you could make the assumption that there's a small possibility that the surface is contaminated. So I would recommend removing wrappers, dispensing with them or recycling them, and then washing your hands before you touch the contents, the food or whatever is inside."

Question: "So for a container of milk, for example, should you wipe down the outside of the container with your disinfectant wipes, if you have the sanitizing wipes?"

Hamer: "If it's not coming out of a plastic bag or something, that would be a reasonable thing to do just as an extra precaution — especially for the elderly and really vulnerable, who, if they acquire this, have a substantial chance of becoming quite ill."

Friday, March 20:

Dr. Jacqueline Olds is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and on staff at Massachusetts General and McLean hospital. She is also the author of the book "The Lonely American," and she answered an audience question on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Question: "Are we potentially facing a collective societal trauma, even a collective worldwide trauma? And what are the implications with that?" 

Olds: "It is definitely a trauma. But it's also a cause that we are all joining in on. And it has all sorts of unusual consequences, for example, because all of us aren't moving and getting in cars and going to work. There is a huge decrease in the amount of energy we're using. And they had maps of Italy and how much the pollution was reduced. So we are actually doing an enormous experiment in not traveling as much and it has bad consequences economically, but it also has some great consequences for the climate problem we're facing."

Thursday, March 19:

Dr. Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital, answered audience questions on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Here are some of the questions he answered:

Question: "I am a life-long smoker with emphysema and COPD. If I get the virus, am I a goner?"

Slavin: "No, you're not a goner. But you're certainly at higher risk than the average person. It looks like the mortality associated with this virus is in the 1% range, but certainly higher in older people and those with co-morbidities like COPD."

Question: "I am a 61-year-old woman with lupus. I'm afraid that if I do catch the virus, I won't be able to fight it off. Would I be hospitalized if I catch it, and what would they do to help me fight it?"

Slavin: "The reason you would be hospitalized is that you needed some kind of supportive therapy, like IV fluids or supplemental oxygen. Those would be the criteria that determined whether you needed to be hospitalized. And while in the hospital, we unfortunately don't have any treatment to fight the virus itself, but we he help make sure that your fluid balance and oxygenation is as good as possible. Some good news it that there is a drug that we have already enrolled patients in — in a clinical trial — called remdesivir; it was developed by Gilead [Sciences] for Ebola and its mechanism of action gives us hope that it will be effective against this virus, and clinical trials at Mass General and across the country, and I believe across the world, are under way."

Monday, March 16:

Dr. Hamer answered audience questions on WBUR's Morning Edition.

Here are some of the questions he answered:

Question: "I feel feel fine. My family feels fine. My friend in the next town and her family feels fine. So why can't we get together?"

Hamer: "There is an interesting amount of data ... [showing] that individuals, once they're exposed to the virus ... the incubation period on average is four to six days; but it can be as short as two days. After they're exposed, but before they develop symptoms, they may end up with a high viral load — a high amount of virus in their nasopharynx or oropharynx — and then can be shedding it ... when [they] cough or sneeze, or just by touching their mouth. And that can lead to cross-contamination of surfaces, but also if they shake hands or have other close contact with colleagues and friends. Before they become symptomatic, they may be able to transmit the virus. So even if you're with somebody that says it's fine, you don't know necessarily if they've been exposed; they could be infected."

Question: "I suffer from adult asthma that's triggered by adult allergies. Currently, I have a deep cough that I am treating with a nebulizer and allergy medication. I don't feel badly and I don't have a fever. Should I get tested? And if so, where to go?"

Hamer: "If it's ... your usual asthma symptoms ... and nothing different, then I think probably testing is not necessary. (If you do need testing, there are a number of hospitals that have set up external screening centers.) ... If these are your typical asthma symptoms and nothing different from usual, it probably is better to stay away from healthcare settings for the time being if you're not really sick because of the small potential risk of exposure there. Hospitals are taking a lot of precautions, both to protect other patients, but also to protect healthcare workers, but ... if there are a lot of infected people there, there will be some degree of risk."

This article was originally published on March 17, 2020.

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