Short Wave Answers Your Coronavirus Questions How does the coronavirus spread? Does wearing a face mask actually help? And why is the virus getting so much media coverage? This episode, we answer your coronavirus-related questions with the help of NPR global health and development reporter Pien Huang.

Follow Pien on Twitter @Pien_Huang and host Maddie Sofia @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org. Also, we're looking for a summer intern! Apply here.
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A Coronavirus Listener Q&A Episode

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A Coronavirus Listener Q&A Episode

A Coronavirus Listener Q&A Episode

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  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. Today

we're talking coronavirus - more specifically, your questions about it. And y'all, you had a lot of them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How much of the concern is fear-driven versus data-driven?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Is a mask the only way to reduce the risk?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Is this just media hype? Or am I missing something?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: How do scientists go about...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Is it true the coronavirus...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: How can we keep ourselves safe while traveling?

SOFIA: But fear not, SHORT WAVE listeners. I've got NPR global health and development reporter Pien Huang with me here in the studio. Hiya (ph), Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi, Maddie.

SOFIA: OK, so before we jump in, Pien, let's bring everybody up to speed.

HUANG: So there's this strain of virus. It's called the 2019 novel coronavirus, and it appears to have originated in Wuhan, China.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Despite all efforts, the number of infections keeps rising.

SOFIA: It causes upper respiratory symptoms, dry cough, difficulty breathing; in more severe cases, pneumonia and even kidney failure.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A global health emergency has since been declared. But there...

HUANG: Most of the cases are showing up in China, but the virus has started to spread around the globe.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Countries are racing to stop its spreading.

SOFIA: And as of Thursday, when we're recording this, there are more than 28,000 confirmed cases worldwide and more than 560 reported deaths.

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SOFIA: So today on the show, we'll answer your questions about the coronavirus - how it spreads, whether or not wearing a face mask actually helps, plus some clues into why the virus is getting so much media attention. I'm Maddie Sofia. And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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SOFIA: OK. So our first question comes from Amanda Ervine (ph) in Chicago.

AMANDA ERVINE: My question is how does the coronavirus spread? And can I catch it from simply being in the same public space as someone - for example, an airport?

SOFIA: We got a lot of questions about how the coronavirus spreads. So talk to me, Pien.

HUANG: I talked to Dr. Lin Chen. She heads up the travel medicine center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. And she says it mostly spreads person to person through droplets and snot.

LIN CHEN: So, for example, if somebody is coughing or sneezing and it lands on your face or near you or lands on a surface where you then touch and then somehow bring the droplet close to your face, nose and mouth, that's how it can spread.

SOFIA: It seems to be less contagious than the flu or measles, which you can literally just, like, breathe out and it hangs around in the air and then somebody else breathes it in.

HUANG: Yeah. So if you're outside or even inside at a place like the airport, you don't have to be awkward about it.

(LAUGHTER)

HUANG: You don't have to glare at people for sneezing. But just try and keep some space between you and someone who looks sick. She says the CDC puts that distance at about six feet away. And as always...

CHEN: Good hand-washing is really, really key - after touching anything, before touching the face, before touching food,

SOFIA: You got to wash those paws, Pien.

HUANG: Yeah, Maddie. It's a germ, and like most germs, you can kill it or you can wash it off with soap and water. But if you absolutely don't have access to a sink, then you can arm yourself with some alcohol wipes and some strong hand sanitizer.

SOFIA: But what about the people that can spread it without seeming sick or even knowing they're sick themselves?

HUANG: So there's been some debate around this asymptomatic transmission. It's the idea that people could be walking around feeling totally fine and still giving it to other people, which is kind of scary thought.

SOFIA: Yeah.

HUANG: And last week, there was a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was about a case in Germany, where a woman who didn't seem sick still gave the virus to her co-workers. But the problem was that the authors didn't actually talk to the woman.

SOFIA: Right. And when other people did talk to her, it turns out that she actually was feeling sick; she just took some medicine and went to work.

HUANG: Yeah. So it's not actually clear yet whether asymptomatic transmission is or isn't happening. But even if it is happening, health officials say that it's really not a big driver in this outbreak, and they're actually much more concerned about people who really are a little bit sick but are still going to school and to work.

SOFIA: Right. And then there's the question of masks. This one came from Alex (ph) in Hong Kong. Are surgical masks or n95 masks going to help us out at all?

HUANG: Yeah. And I would say, if you're going to be that person who goes to work sick - and I am not naming any names.

SOFIA: Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

HUANG: It would probably help if you wore a mask.

MARYBETH SEXTON: Logic would suggest that it probably does decrease some spread of germs from somebody who actually is ill.

HUANG: That's Dr. Marybeth Sexton at Emory University.

SOFIA: So if you yourself are sick, mask - maybe a good idea.

HUANG: Right.

SOFIA: And so in hospitals, at least, wearing a mask helps catch sputum and snot and keep it from spreading. And like Alex said, there are two types of masks, right?

HUANG: Yeah. That's right, Maddie. There's the n95 respirator mask, which fits tight to your face, and it blocks out most airborne particles. And then there's surgical masks, which are these gauzy rectangular pieces of cloth or paper, and you loop them around your ears and they cover your nose and mouth.

SOFIA: OK. So those n95 respirator masks, they're kind of the stiff ones that have kind of, like, a little half dome. They're recommended for hospital settings but not for the general public.

HUANG: Yeah. They're said to be pretty uncomfortable, and they might make it hard to breathe. And for people who want to prevent themselves from getting sick, masks might not do a whole lot. Sexton says it depends on the setting. Like, walking around outdoors with a mask isn't really helpful.

SEXTON: It's really going to be in enclosed spaces with people who are contagious that you have the most risk of transmission. And so those are probably the situations where you might see some benefit from wearing the mask. But again, I think that the emphasis solely on the mask could even be counterproductive because we really need people to wash their hands and to not expose other people if they're symptomatic.

SOFIA: So, like, people might put on a mask and be like, oh, I'm protected, and give you kind of a false sense of security.

HUANG: Yeah. Right. And a bunch of people who really aren't used to wearing them, they might be touching their faces a lot, or they might keep wearing the same mask over and over, and that could actually do more harm than good.

SOFIA: Another thing that we got questions about a lot is this thing called an R-naught. It's a no. It's super complicated. And it's something that people get wrong all the time. And Christine Galarsky (ph) from Columbus, Ohio. O-H...

HUANG: I-O.

SOFIA: Yes, you nailed it. She asked us about it.

CHRISTINE GALARSKY: Do we know what the R-naught of this current coronavirus is?

SOFIA: OK, here we go. You ready?

HUANG: Mmm, think so.

SOFIA: So R-naught is the number of people one sick person could infect on average, and that's in a population that's totally susceptible - that's important - so a group of people in which nobody's vaccinated or has gotten the virus yet. You can kind of think about it as contagiousness. But it's a little more complicated.

HUANG: How so?

SOFIA: Lots of things go into this intense calculation-slash-mathematical model that spits out this number, stuff like how long a person's contagious, how likely am I to pass the virus to you if I'm sick and we've made what's called effective contact with each other.

HUANG: Right. And it's not actually necessarily a constant.

SOFIA: Exactly. In multiple ways. As we learn more and more about the biology of the virus, the number will change. And it also changes based on the population you're talking about - so factors like the way people act, how many people come in contact with each other in that population. Think super congested city versus a rural population.

HUANG: OK, Maddie, but back to Christine's original question.

SOFIA: OK.

HUANG: What is the actual number?

SOFIA: Fine, Pien. OK, it's actually a range. Here's Maria Van Kerkhove a top World Health Organization official.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: Estimates of the reproduction number range from 1.4 to 4.9 - so above one, where we see human-to-human transmission. But again, these estimates may be refined as more data becomes available.

HUANG: OK. So that actually sounds kind of bad. Like, one person getting five more people sick is a lot of people.

SOFIA: Yeah, I hear you. But the first thing to keep in mind is that this number was calculated based on the population in China, right? So not the States. And again, we need to learn a lot more to feel super confident in that range or that number. And the final note - high or not doesn't mean that a virus is super deadly. It also doesn't talk about, like, how fast it will spread. It's not a rate calculation. And no doubt this is a cause for concern, but I don't think it's really a cause for panic, at least not for us here in the U.S.

HUANG: OK. So keep calm.

SOFIA: Yes, a little bit - for now. And so that's R-naught. Let's leave that right there by itself.

HUANG: OK. OK, Maddie, I've left it. All right, last question. Y'all had a lot of people asking about, how panicked should I be? Why is the media so all over this?

SOFIA: Yes, we did. Here's one from David Kantler (ph).

DAVID KANTLER: Why is the coronavirus being reported on so much? I do not intend to be callous or obtuse, but I'm curious what element is here that makes this virus so alarming, as compared to car deaths in the U.S., deaths by gun or even our current flu epidemic that has taken so many more lives?

SOFIA: Yeah, I think this is actually a pretty great question, like, one that I actually think about a lot as a human, scientist and a journalist. What do you feel about it, Pien?

HUANG: So I think it's a fair point that there's a lot of breathless coverage going on right now about the coronavirus, and I know that we're contributing to it, too. We've been talking about the coronavirus virus a lot.

SOFIA: All the time.

HUANG: And it's everywhere. And so that might give people a feeling that we might all be dying of it at any given moment.

SOFIA: Sure.

HUANG: But the fact is that in the United States, the risk is actually really low.

SOFIA: Right. And I think it depends on who you are. So if you're a person in China, this probably doesn't feel like too much coverage. But in the U.S., it could seem overkill.

HUANG: Yeah. And something else I think we need to be aware of in the U.S. press is not to vilify the people who are the actual victims of the virus, you know, when we talk about the markets where the virus is thought to have come from and what people eat in China.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, we've even talked about that stuff on the show, and I feel like we could do better. But in the defense of this abundant media coverage, here's the thing - we don't actually know that much about this virus, and that is scary.

And so I think from a public health perspective, there's a good idea that we should take this extremely seriously, that we should have a strong position, so that we can stamp it out because there are legitimate fears about this getting a foothold and becoming, you know, like a new flu that's always around and that we have to deal with over and over again. And part of the way you contain a potentially global threat like this is to have a lot of coverage, to hear from experts and to share information as much as you can.

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SOFIA: All right, Pien, thank you for coming by and answering these questions with us. We finally got you on SHORT WAVE.

HUANG: Yes, finally.

SOFIA: I need you to come back soon.

HUANG: I would love to. And Maddie, can I just say, it's an honor just to be SHORT WAVE.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: One more quick note before we go - SHORT WAVE is on the hunt for a summer intern. So all your science weirdoes out there, get those applications ready. There's a link to the details in today's episode notes.

Today's episode was produced by Brit Hanson and edited by Geoff Brumfiel. The facts were checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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