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These 5 mistakes could worsen the coronavirus outbreak

These office workers didn't get the memo that sick people should work from home.
These office workers didn't get the memo that sick people should work from home. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Every person can do their part to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2. But, in times of uncertainty, it's easy to make mistakes. 

The biggest problem is if you spread the virus to other people, especially those with compromised immune systems. "If you are infected and come into contact with other people, you put those people at risk," said Dr. Stanley Deresinski, a clinical professor of infectious diseases at Stanford Medicine. "That's basically what it revolves around."

Here are five blunders that could exacerbate the current outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19. 

Related: Live updates on COVID-19

1. Not quarantining if you're sick

If you have COVID-19 or suspect that you do, but have mild symptoms, including mild fever, cough or sore throat, you should self-quarantine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends. Those with more serious symptoms, such as high fever, weakness, lethargy or shortness of breath, should seek medical care, Live Science previously reported

"Someone who is actively sick with COVID-19 can spread the illness to others," the CDC says. "That is why CDC recommends that these patients be isolated either in the hospital or at home (depending on how sick they are) until they are better and no longer pose a risk of infecting others."

It's important to take these quarantines seriously, Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, told Live Science in a Feb. 28 interview. "Many of us work from home from time to time, and it doesn't mean you're locked in the house," McNulty said. "In this case, it really does mean that. You're agreeing to stay home."

If you live with other people or even pets, remember to quarantine yourself from these individuals, too. There are no reports of pets becoming ill with COVID-19, but it's best for sick people to steer clear of animals until more is known about the virus, the CDC says. Sorry, but that includes "petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked and sharing food," with your pet, the CDC says. "If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets and wear a face mask."

2. Believing conspiracy theories but not health professionals

Social media and even some news sites are swarming with conspiracy theories and misinformation, and that's despite the efforts that some companies, including YouTube, Facebook and Amazon, have taken to pour water on the flames, according to The Washington Post

If people believe these theories — for instance, that the virus is a hoax or not a serious health threat — "they may be ill and not quarantine themselves," Deresinski told Live Science. 

In addition, be skeptical of theories that sprout close to home. For example, people shouldn't listen to "Uncle Harry's idea of what you ought to do as opposed to what the CDC says you should do," McNulty said. 

3. Seeking alternative treatments

If people are sick, but pursue so-called alternative treatments or natural therapies rather than quarantining themselves or seeking scientifically backed medical care, they could "pose an additional risk," to the public, Deresinski said.

Right now, there is no vaccine for COVID-19, according to the CDC. So, beware of claims of cures, including eating garlic, downing elderberry syrup, guzzling vitamin C and drinking industrial bleach — all ideas that have been debunked, according to, a project at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania

4. Not practicing good hygiene

This may sound obvious, but practicing good hygiene can be a chore, so we'll repeat it here. CDC recommendations include:

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
  • Not touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Staying home if you are sick.
  • Covering coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then tossing that tissue in the trash.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces using regular household cleaning sprays or wipes.
  • Wearing a face mask if you're showing symptoms of COVID-19, or if you're a health care worker or a caregiver of someone who is sick.
  • Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol. 

These measures have been shown to reduce transmission of respiratory illnesses by 21%, according to a 2008 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Public Health. Other studies show that programs promoting hand washing reduces absenteeism in school-aged children.

5. Stockpiling face masks or respirators

Stores across America have sold out of face masks and it's getting difficult to buy them online without paying a fortune. However, as the U.S. surgeon general tweeted Feb. 29, "Seriously people - STOP BUYING MASKS!" 

Wearing a regular surgical mask does not protect against the coronavirus. That's because these masks only loosely fit over the mouth and nose (they don't protect the eyes) and don't block tiny viral particles, including SARS-CoV-2. In contrast, the N95 respirator can offer protection, but the  public shouldn't stockpile these, either. 

"It's important to realize that these [N95 respirators] are only worn in health care settings," Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Live Science in a Feb. 28 interview. 

Medical professionals and people who need face masks or respirators, including those sick with COVID-19 and their caregivers, won't be able to get these supplies if others unnecessarily stockpile them, Glatter said. 

In all, the best way to beat the virus is by changing how we behave.

"You're less controlling the virus than you are controlling the actions of people," McNulty said. "You can't order a virus to do something. You can't negotiate or reason with it. It's not intimidated by a tweet storm. A virus is going to do what a virus is going to do."

Originally published on Live Science.

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Laura Geggel

Laura is an editor at Live Science. She edits Life's Little Mysteries and reports on general science, including archaeology and animals. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and an advanced certificate in science writing from NYU.