How to Read Coronavirus Stories Without Freaking Out

The coronavirus situation seems to get worse each day. The six o’clock news used to start off with moderate predictions of impending doom: “Santa Claus is coming to town. Is your family at risk?” But now it’s wall-to-wall COVID-19 coverage, and journalists really mean it this time. Everyone is on edge due to the fear of infection, and it’s nearly impossible to read the headlines without doing wee-wee in your pants.

Although the apocalypse may be upon us, it’s still important to separate the truly scary stories from the falsely scary stories. Consider a recent report by the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, lamenting the survivability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on paper money and computer screens. If you read the research yourself, you will quickly find that they do in fact spell “center” the wrong way. Also, according to the scientists at ACDP, the coronavirus is “extremely robust,” and lasts up to twenty-eight days on smooth surfaces.

For those who may not have understood the full impact of the research, let me summarize that OMG WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE ESCAPE TO MARS WITH ELON MUSK WHILE THERE’S STILL TIME!!

For their experiment, the scientists scooped some SARS-CoV-2 out of their handy Virus Vat and applied it to several flat surfaces, including stainless steel, glass, “de-monetized paper bank notes” presumably from Venezuela, cotton cloth, and a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of a visiting scholar from New Zealand.

The outcomes were newsworthy, with samples of the virus enduring twenty-eight days on all non-porous surfaces tested, though less than fourteen days for all porous items. The results line up perfectly with other research efforts, including a recent announcement that the virus can survive on chilled salmon for an entire week. Chilled salmon is porous.

Fortunately, the news is not as dire as this experiment would indicate. Here’s the thing you should know about studies like this: they are conducted in a nearly perfect environment, so as to rule out influences from contaminants or gangs of rival researchers. In this specific study, the pre-sterilized, virus-slathered surfaces were stored in a completely dark, temperature- and humidity-controlled chamber, removed momentarily once per week to see how the virus was getting on.

The virus got on fairly well, at least for items stored at 20°C. The unlucky virus samples did not fare as well when stored at 30°C or 40°C, or were exposed to sunlight or other forms of ultraviolet radiation for a few seconds, or were cleaned away with alcohol or other products that viruses are allergic to. Even in the least-hostile environment, most of the viruses didn’t endure anywhere close to four weeks, with the half-life (the time for half of the virus sample to die) on solid surfaces maxing out at around two days, on average. Yes, the virus was “detectable” after twenty-eight days, but not much of it.

This is a fairly common trope when it comes to science reporting, especially for something as scary as a pandemic. Scientists with real Ph.D.’s are researching the coronavirus, like, every single day. They are constantly revealing one of its many secrets, such as the virus being able to travel more than twelve feet by air, farther than almost every United Airlines flight these days. But clear-thinking readers must always ask: under what conditions? If the tests are done in an enclosed, non-air-conditioned room, how do I apply the results when I am outside on a sunny day under a gentle breeze? Or in New Orleans during a hurricane?

The kinds of experiments that rise to the level of national news analysis are performed under highly managed conditions, crafted to be perfectly repeatable, something that is rarely possible outside the lab. While the science should never be ignored, it needs to be adapted to everyday circumstances, especially when common, daily actions can greatly reduce the risks.

The point is that if you think you will be spending close to twenty-eight days cooped up with some coronavirus at a constant 20°C, go ahead and live in abject fear. Or, you could just let some sunlight in once in a while, or make friends with that bottle of isopropyl alcohol. In other environments, you’ll probably be fine by wearing an adequate mask and washing your hands often. Also, stay away from the chilled salmon.

[Image Credits: John Guccione]

Tim Patrick

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