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Should I cancel my convention plans? Balancing coronavirus fears and realities

It’s times like these when it’s most difficult to parse good information from bad.

A new disease, deadlier and more infectious than any we’ve seen before, is unleashed on unsuspecting humanity, to disastrous results. It’s a familiar plot, whether hatched by Marvel’s villainous Stryfe, or spread from monkeys to threaten Dustin Hoffman. It’s even scarier when it’s real.

Is that what we can expect from “coronavirus” in the United States, or even worldwide? Some people aren’t taking chances. Dark Horse Comics and Valiant have already pulled out of next week’s Emerald City Comic Con, scheduled in Seattle, where the most U.S. instances of coronavirus have been reported (70 infections with 11 deaths, mostly among the elderly). DC Comics went further, canceling ALL convention plans in March, regardless of location.

Before we get into how warranted any of this is, and what you (yes, YOU) should be doing (or not doing) to limit your exposure, let’s look at some background. “Coronavirus” is actually a pretty big umbrella term for a family of viruses that cause things like colds and SARS, which sparked similar concerns back in the early 21st century. COVID-19 is the disease caused by this newly discovered strain of coronavirus, with flu-like symptoms such as fever, dry cough, and exhaustion.

No one knows for sure how this novel coronavirus emerged, but Outbreak might have been on the right track. Since it originated in China, it didn’t come from monkeys, but speculation has fallen on bats and pangolins, which can be infected with a virus that shares 96% and about 90%, respectively, of the same genetic material as this new coronavirus, suggesting a possible jump there. Pangolins are scaly mammals used in “traditional Chinese medicine” which, to the horror of many, was endorsed by the World Health Organization in 2019. Not only does this endanger people, who don’t get the real treatment they need when settling for something else, but such practices can drive rarer species toward extinction.

Globally, there have been over 98,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 3,000 deaths, for a lethality rate of just over 3%. The flu usually kills less than 1% of those it infects, and all the same caveats apply — the ones in most danger are the old, the young, and people who are already immunocompromised. It’s important to note that 80,000 of those cases have been in China, where the average level of healthcare is not what it is in the U.S., so that rate may be lower if COVID-19 becomes widespread here.

You’ve probably already heard some good ways to limit that spread and reduce your own chances of contracting COVID-19, but there’s also a lot of bad information out there. Even if you probably won’t die from it, getting a bad flu really sucks, so here are some things to keep in mind going forward.

Wash your damn hands!

Good advice to limit the spread of contagions always. You should be washing your hands frequently already, with soap, for at least 20 seconds at a time. This is literally the #1 way to slow down the spread of pathogens, and it’s probably the easiest to do. Also, don’t touch your face so much and consider handshake alternatives when greeting people.

Hand sanitizer … might actually help

I was so ready to storm in here and tell everyone that you can’t kill a virus, so don’t bother raiding store shelves and mortgaging your house for hand sanitizer on eBay, but as it turns out, sanitizers made up of at least 60% alcohol can be pretty effective, breaking down the protein coat that surrounds this novel coronavirus. This is NOT true for all viruses, though; we’re just a little lucky that this one is of the “right” type that it can actually be affected. But, still refer to “Wash your damn hands!” first, and consider this one a supplement.

And for God’s sake, don’t try to make your own. This is not the time to Breaking Bad your sh*t and end up doing yourself more harm than good. You’ll probably make something that’s either too strong and potentially hurting yourself, or making something too weak that gives you a false sense of security.

Enough with the masks!

On the other hand, facemasks aren’t going to protect you how you think they will. They’re not very effective at preventing contraction of the novel coronavirus, but they are good for slapping on sick people to slow down how much they spread it. Don’t create a pointless shortage when it’s healthcare workers who really need them, for their patients and for themselves.

Limit your exposure

You can’t catch it if you haven’t been near it. The novel coronavirus doesn’t do so well out in the environment, and is primarily spread by person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets when someone who’s infected coughs or sneezes. Early identification of infection and immediate quarantine of patients and their close contacts has ground the spread down dramatically in China, so maybe not going to ECCC is the right idea after all.

Don’t go overboard on the precautionary principle

The flip side of that is freaking out about going to places that don’t have high rates of infection, which doesn’t help anyone. Sure, limiting travel might be a good idea just in case, but you probably shouldn’t stop living your life out of fear of coming into contact with something. Being too careful when there’s not much reason to has real consequences, like when anti-GMO fears keep people from crops that would help them.

It’s also in times of fear like now that the scammers come out in full force to take advantage. There is no “cure” or vaccine for the novel coronavirus, so don’t believe anyone who tells you they can stop it, especially if it’s through the ingestion of heavy metals or special water. As with all health issues, follow Science-Based Medicine to help cut through the bullsh*t, and hunt down the sources of claims. Like washing your hands, it’s good practice all the time.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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