Mask mandates, according to a recent study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, actually do help slow the spread of COVID-19. Black Press File Photo

Mask mandates, according to a recent study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, actually do help slow the spread of COVID-19. Black Press File Photo

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to COVID-19

A look at a few common myths out there about this global pandemic and how we’re dealing with it

Series concludes

With much of the conversation happening out there in the world these days – and especially on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – being about COVID-19, it can be hard to tell what information to trust.

After all, it can seem like the information we receive changes regularly, even when we’re getting it from the same source we got it from last time.

For example, there was a time not long ago – in the grand scheme of things – where we were told that cloth or paper masks were ineffective at slowing down the spread of the virus. Now there are mandates in place that require us to wear them almost everywhere we go.

So, let’s look at what we know, and who we know it from, and see if we can bust some popular myths that are out there surrounding this pandemic, the virus itself, the vaccination that is currently rolling out, and a few other things.

Let’s start with that pesky question about masks.

1. “Forcing people to wear masks isn’t going to help”

The evidence is pretty clear at this point about the effectiveness of wearing even non-medical-grade masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. But what about “mandating” their use?

“The wearing of face masks by the general public has been a heated policy issue during the COVID-19 pandemic, with national health authorities and the World Health Organization giving inconsistent or contradictory recommendations over time, ranging from ‘not recommended’ to ‘mandatory’,” reads a study done by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, which focused on Canada’s mask usage, as it was relatively easy to chart increases and decreases in COVID-19 cases and compare them to the introduction of mask policies, as well as the data available “allowing two complementary approaches to identify the policy effects and distinguish them from other factors.”

The study compared health units that adopted mask mandates early to those that held off, and incorporated other non-pharmaceutical interventions – such as limiting gatherings, school closures, etc. – and used data from both the “closing-down period” in March and April, as well as the “gradual reopening period” in May and August.

“Our estimates, from a range of empirical specifications, imply that two weeks after implementation, mask mandates are associated, on average, with a reduction of 29 to 37 log points in the weekly case growth rate,” the study says, “which can be interpreted as a 25–31 per cent weekly reduction in new cases relative to the no-mandate trend.”

And that’s just the effect of people actually following mask mandates once they were implemented. We all know people who didn’t. And don’t. It’s not hard to imagine those numbers being that much better if everyone was onboard.

2. “COVID-19 was engineered in a lab in China and released as a bio-weapon on the world.”

While it is true that the COVID-19 virus first began infecting people in Wuhan, China, the scientific consensus on the virus is that it was not manmade or genetically modified.

Virologist Shi Zhengli heads a group of researchers studying bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institue of Virology, and has been the target of many accusations.

Shi took a while to publicly respond to the accusations thrown at her and her lab, but when she did, in a letter to Science – one of the world’s foremost scientific journals – she hit back at the speculation that the spread of the pandemic is because the virus either leaked from (or was caused by) her lab.

“She and her colleagues discovered the virus in late 2019,” Science reports, “in samples from patients who had a pneumonia of unknown origin. ‘Before that, we had never been in contact with or studied this virus, nor did we know of its existence.’”

Shi says that in the past 15 years, “her lab has isolated and grown in culture only three bat coronaviruses related to one that infected humans: the agent that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which erupted in 2003. The more than 2,000 other bat coronaviruses the lab has detected, including one that is 96.2 per cent identical to SARS-CoV-2 — which means they shared a common ancestor decades ago — are simply genetic sequences that her team has extracted from fecal samples and oral and anal swabs of the animals. She also noted that all of the staff and students in her lab were recently tested for SARS-CoV-2 and everyone was negative, challenging the notion that an infected person in her group triggered the pandemic.”

And the rest of the scientific community seems to agree with her assertion that the virus did not originate in her – or any – laboratory.

So how did the virus originate?

In a paper published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, a group of 11 well-accredited and decorated researchers approached that question.

It turns out that it originated the same way other coronaviruses have in the past.

See, coronaviruses are compact nucleic acid packages of RNA associated with proteins in the body. They generally form in animals or insects and then are passed to humans through a process known as “host-switching.”

It’s happened numerous times before, and it will happen numerous times in the future.

In fact, this pandemic was in some ways actually predicted back in 2007 when scientists studying coronaviruses warned that “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV–like viruses in horseshoe bats… is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses… should not be ignored.”

3. “We’re destroying the economy for a flu!”

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, one of the foremost medical research institutions in the world, although there are many similarities between the seasonal flu and the COVID-19 virus, the differences are significant enough to make this myth particularly dangerous.

While both illnesses spread via droplets or particles from a sick person transmitting the virus to people nearby, or by touching a surface that has the virus on it and transferring the germs to yourself – by then touching your face, for example – and the symptoms that present with both illnesses are similar, the complications associated with the two illnesses are very different.

COVID-19 complications can include long-term damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other organs after a severe case, while serious complications from seasonal influenza are comparatively limited to inflamation of the heart, brain or muscles, although in extreme cases can lead to organ failure, as well, according to Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention and Johns Hopkins.

Then there’s the death count.

Maragakis says while the World Health Organization estimates that between 290,000 and 650,000 people die of flu-related causes each year worldwide, 303,867 people had died of COVID-19 between January and Dec. 16 of this year in the U.S. alone, with over 1.6-million deaths reported worldwide.

4. “The vaccine is more dangerous than what it’s protecting you from.”

Some people are pointing to severe allergic reactions to the new Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – the first approved vaccine for COVID-19 – to recipients in the U.K. as cause for worry that the vaccine is dangerous.

While it is true that there were two such reactions, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) points out that both of the individuals in question “had a history of severe reactions and carried medication in case of reaction,” and were both quickly treated and recovered from the reaction.

They are also, however, recommending an abundance of caution for those with previous history of allergic reactions when it comes to getting the vaccine.

“As vaccine roll out begins, Health Canada recommends that people with allergies to any of the ingredients in the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID 19 vaccine should not receive it,” the BCCDC says. “An ingredient in the vaccine that has been associated with a rare but serious allergy (anaphylaxis) is polyethylene glycol (PEG). PEG can be found in some cosmetics, skin care products, laxatives, cough syrups, and bowel preparation products for colonoscopy. PEG can be an additive in some processed foods and drinks but no cases of anaphylaxis to PEG in foods and drinks have been reported. People with a serious allergy to PEG should not receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.”

And according to the Mayo Clinic, a non-profit medical system widely regarded as the best system of medical facilities in the world, the COVID-19 vaccine’s side-effects for the vast majority of people who will receive it are “mild” and include pain, redness or swelling where the shot was given, fever, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills and joint pain.

And the benefits of getting the vaccine far outweigh those negatives.

“COVID-19 can cause severe medical complications and lead to death in some people,” the clinic writes. “There is no way to know how COVID-19 will affect you. If you get COVID-19, you could spread the disease to family, friends and others around you. A COVID-19 vaccine might prevent you from getting COVID-19. Or, if you get COVID-19, the vaccine might keep you from becoming seriously ill or from developing serious complications.

“Getting vaccinated also might help protect people around you from COVID-19, particularly people at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

Many will likely find that a good tradeoff for a little redness and swelling in their arm, and maybe a headache.