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Silent Spreaders, Masks, and COVID-19

There are many alarming aspects about the novel coronavirus, from its unusual symptoms, to the lingering effects in many patients, to the fact that it may be possible to get COVID-19 more than once.

One of the more disquieting aspects of SARS-CoV-2 is the stealthy way it can spread. Like having a perfectly normal-seeming next-door neighbor who turns out to be a serial killer, the coronavirus often doesn’t advertise its presence until it’s too late.

Our family practice doctors in Delray Beach want to bring you up to date on the latest findings we have on the way the virus spreads, and the best information on how best to protect yourself and others.

 

Silent spreaders

As scientists around the world race to unlock answers about SARS-CoV-2, studies are being released at an unprecedented pace. One of the newest, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), backs up similar studies dating back to January which has found that up to half of all cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. could be due to “silent transmission.”

That means that those who have no symptoms of the virus could be spreading it to others without knowing. Public health experts early in the outbreak doubted this could be happening with the SARS-CoV-2 because, traditionally, coronaviruses like the common cold are typically spread only by those with obvious symptoms.

“We were thinking this thing is going to look like SARS: a long incubation period and no transmission during the incubation period,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, a disease modeler at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Associated Press (AP). SARS is another coronavirus which appeared in China in 2002, but was rapidly brought under control.

With SARS-CoV-2, the virus enters the body through the eyes, nose, and mouth, and hijacks healthy cells (through the red spikes you see on the illustrations of it), immediately reproducing tens of thousands of copies of itself in a single day.

But it’s human host may not begin showing symptoms—cough, fever, shortness of breath, skin rashes, confusion, headache, diarrhea, etc.—until many days later. Meanwhile, the individual is emitting viral particles with every exhalation.

 

Masks help more than thought

This is why, lacking a viable, safe vaccine, the only thing we can do to stop the spread is to control its transmission person by person. This means avoiding crowds, especially indoors where, without adequate ventilation, infected droplets can linger in the air for up to 18 minutes, according to some studies. It means not assuming that those who “feel fine” aren’t sick, and it means wearing a face-covering around other people.

The politicization of masks is unfortunate, because they have been shown to be the best way to not only protect others from the inadvertent transmission of the virus, but also the fastest way to help life return to normal.

“Some countries took out their masks as soon as this happened,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California at San Francisco, told The Washington Post, “and their rates of death are very low.”

 

They protect the wearer, too

One of the common beliefs about wearing a mask is that they don’t protect the wearer, but are meant to protect others. This is true, to a certain extent, especially because disposable surgical masks and homemade cloth masks aren’t designed to filter out 95 percent of viral particles the way medical N-95 masks are.

But it turns out that any type of mask can help the wearer, because it cuts down on the amount of virus the wearer is exposed to, either reducing or even eliminating entirely the possibility of severe illness.

Studies going back decades have shown that exposure to larger amounts of a virus resulted in more serious forms of the disease. One conducted this past May at the University of Hong Kong shielded two groups of hamsters with surgical masks between their cages. Not only were transmission rates from the coronavirus-infected hamsters significantly lower, the healthy animals either didn’t get COVID-19 at all or got a very mild case.

This may also help explain why some people who test positive have a milder form of the disease than others.

So we recommend universal use of face coverings to not only help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but to shield yourself from the worst effects of this destructive disease.

 

If you have any questions about the best ways to protect yourself from the coronavirus, or how to stay healthier in general, don’t hesitate to call our office to schedule a Telehealth visit with one of our doctors.

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