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Myths circulating about the COVID-19 outbreak are leading some people to behave in ways that could endanger their health and the health of others. Getty Images
  • While the flu and COVID-19 both cause respiratory illness, they are different.
  • Dry cough, fever, and fatigue are three early symptoms most commonly associated with infection from SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease.
  • Although older people and those who are immunosuppressed are at greatest risk for complications, younger Americans can have complications from COVID-19.
  • Washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, and practicing social distancing are the best ways to protect yourself from the new coronavirus.

Despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), some people choose to dismiss the seriousness of the pandemic.

“A pandemic on the scale of what a novel virus like SARS-CoV-2 could end up being has not occurred since the influenza pandemic of 1918 that took the lives of some 50 million or more people worldwide,” Dr. Joseph M. Pierre, health sciences clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, told Healthline.

“Since few of us were around then, and given medical advances in the form of preventative vaccines and antiviral medications since that time, it’s hard for us to imagine that a ‘flu-like’ illness could be so destructive.”

As many Americans try to grasp the magnitude of COVID-19, recognizing misinformation can be difficult.

Here’s the truth from experts about 5 of the most common myths about the pandemic.

The flu takes lives each year, but the fact that we have a vaccine and more awareness about the virus makes it a more understandable illness.

However, while the flu and COVID-19 both cause respiratory illness, they are different.

Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch, attending physician and assistant professor in the Infectious Disease Division of Northwell Health in New York, said there is some overlap between COVID-19 and other diseases caused by viral infections.

“Differences between coronavirus and influenza and more common viruses still in circulation are that we know that the coronavirus binds to receptors in the lower part of the airways, and that accounts for the fact that so frequently, but not always, dry cough along with fever and fatigue are three of the symptoms that are most commonly associated with COVID-19,” Hirsch told Healthline.

While dry cough, fever, and fatigue can occur with other viral infections, he said muscle aches and pains are distinct signs of the flu, while the common cold may bring on with a runny nose, sore throat, or sneezing.

“Having a runny nose is not expected with COVID-19 infection. Having muscle aches and pains is much more common with influenza. Having a productive cough, coughing up phlegm, can occur with COVID-19 infections, particularly late on, but it’s not typical with what the early course is,” said Hirsch.

What makes COVID-19 stand out is its mortality rate, reports WHO.

While more time is needed to gather a full understanding of mortality related to COVID-19, so far WHO states the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases is between 3 percent and 4 percent.

However, the number of reported deaths divided by the number of actual infections will be lower.

In comparison, the mortality for seasonal flu tends to be below 0.1%.

“The idea that we can be vulnerable to some infectious disease as a society… that’s not new. What’s new is the abrupt intensity of this. From where I stand, it feels universal and that all of us are affected personally, socially, economically, and medically, and accepting that and internalizing that is a tremendous challenge,” said Hirsch.

While most people with COVID-19 develop mild or uncomplicated illness, WHO reports that about 14 percent of people infected will develop severe disease and need to be hospitalized, with 5 percent ending up in an intensive care unit.

Although older people and those who are immunosuppressed are at greatest risk for complications, younger Americans aren’t entirely safe.

In fact, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that in the United States, of almost 2,500 people with COVID-19 whose ages were known, 29 percent were 20 to 44 years old.

Hirsch knows this firsthand. He is currently treating a 23-year-old man in critical condition from COVID-19.

“A person who is young is less likely to have severe disease. But we are very disturbed to see a fair number of younger individuals below the age of 60 — in their 30s and 40s — and some of whom are deeply affected, critically ill, on respirators, and requiring extraordinary amounts of medical care and resources, who are getting this infection,” said Hirsch.

He said many of his younger patients are overweight and have unmanaged diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease.

“One of the reasons why our population is vulnerable is not only our tendency to crowd with other people, but that many of us are under stress, we don’t sleep well, and our chronic health conditions may not be well controlled,” he said.

Pierre noted that early reports focused on seniors and people with underlying issues as the most at risk of death from COVID-19. This contributed to young Americans feeling safe from the virus and carrying on with their lives as usual.

Additionally, he said “optimism bias,” a general tendency to underestimate personal risks, is another factor.

“Of course, such an attitude ignores the potential for SARS-CoV-2 carriers with mild illness and those who are asymptomatic to transmit it to people who are more vulnerable, which is a kind of narcissistic or self-centered perspective that’s not unusual when we’re young. So there are many factors that allow us to discount risk during the early stages of a new infectious disease,” Pierre said.

Hirsch said an effective vaccine is realistically about 12 to 18 months away. Once one becomes available, it will take time to understand how effective it is.

“It’s something to strive for, but I don’t think there is a certainty that will end the epidemic,” he said.

He added that focusing on other medications to potentially treat symptoms of COVID-19 are also important, as well as medications that can soothe the body’s inflammatory response to the infection.

“It’s important to evaluate these treatments in ways that give us knowledge as opposed to throwing around all different kinds of treatments in a sloppy way that doesn’t advance our way to care for people,” said Hirsch.

“I’m afraid this virus might not go away as quickly as I hope it would, and it’s important to have strategy.”

While the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, other coronaviruses have caused health problems in humans in recent years, including those responsible for SARS and MERS.

Moreover, certain viruses in the bat population are genetically capable of causing future pandemics, said Hirsch.

“To think of this as a biological weapon that escaped control or as something that is manmade… I understand that as a psychological defense mechanism to be able to understand, contain, and ‘otherize’ this phenomenon. It makes the world easier to understand and gives false comfort and gives a worldview of us versus them,” Hirsch said.

He explained the truth of the situation is that we are biological beings living in a world with other biological beings we can’t always control.

“There are bats that live near humans and viruses that live inside bats. A person who gets infected 7,500 miles away from New York where I live — that person’s health and my health are directly affected with each other. This is the world we have to confront, and we have to accept the fact that we have a certain vulnerability living on such a small, crowded planet,” he said.

Believing in a conspiracy theory about COVID-19 may not be all that uncommon though. Pierre said about 50 percent of Americans believe in a conspiracy theory of some sort.

While there are many reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories, he said evidence shows that conspiracy theories are rooted in mistrust.

“When people don’t trust authoritative sources of information — based on personal experience, political affiliation, or whatever — they are then vulnerable to misinformation. And of course, there is plenty of misinformation out there and many places where conspiracy theories flourish, especially online,” said Pierre.

He added, “As I like to say, conspiracy theorists aren’t so much ‘theorists’ as ‘theists’ who find information that’s already out there and pick and choose what they want to believe based on preconceived notions and confirmation bias.”

With the availability of abundant misinformation alongside reliable information online, he explained searching for answers online becomes a matter of “confirmation bias on steroids.”

Distrust of institutions of authority, such as WHO and CDC, at this time can be problematic, said Hirsch.

“One of our coping strategies has to be to turn to the people who have the best ability to understand at least the scientific aspect of this, and get their insights to be able to prepare properly and take care of ourselves and our country,” he said.

For some Americans, Pierre said the distrust sometimes comes from the belief that liberals will do anything to ruin President Trump’s chances for re-election, and therefore they don’t believe the danger of COVID-19.

Instead, they choose to believe that the media is inducing panic to tank the economy for political reasons.

However, Pierre pointed out that in general conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily more common on one side of the political fence than the other.

“Likewise, we all have cognitive biases related to risk assessment — under some conditions we tend to underestimate risk (like with COVID-19) just as we sometimes tend to overestimate them (like with fears of infrequent, but catastrophic events like airplanes crashing),” he said.

He added that it’s theoretically possible we’re overreacting to COVID-19 if we consider the ramifications that strict social distancing could have on our economy.

“The prevailing consensus from public health scientists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists is that drastic measures are warranted in order to ‘flatten the curve’ and minimize the impact — especially the number of deaths — related to COVID-19,” Pierre said.

If we accept that perspective, and the potential for as many lives to be lost as in 1918, then erring on the side of overreaction makes sense.

“But the reality is that such unprecedented social distancing will indeed have potentially catastrophic effects on the economy the longer it continues. How we balance the risk of mass casualties vs. the risk of economic disaster is something that we’ll likely hear debates about for the foreseeable future,” said Pierre.

In some cases, conspiracy theories arise based on deliberate misinformation or disinformation.

“Misinformation is a well-known tool or weapon of politics that has traditionally been associated with authoritarian regimes like Russia… But it’s increasingly used throughout the world, including here in the U.S., to achieve political ends. Some have argued that the intent has been to get people to lose faith not only in institutions of authority, but to lose faith in the very concepts of truth and trust, such that we now live in something of a ‘post-truth’ world,” said Pierre.

Additionally, he said, believing that there is hidden truth behind world events has appeal.

“When somebody believes they’re privy to that hidden truth, unlike the rest of us ‘sheep,’ it appeals to what psychologists call a ‘need for uniqueness.’ And fictional narratives are often more tantalizing than the mundane truth or the reality that things, and especially terrible things, often happen for no apparent reason,” Pierre said.

Hirsch urges people to listen to the recommendations set by experts, such as frequently washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, and practicing social distancing.

However, because COVID-19 causes the most severe health issues when the body is not healthy and in a pro-inflammatory state, he said taking control of your health is just as crucial.

“If we were a healthier population, we’d be able to be more resilient to this and other types of infection problems. I believe the portion of people who would be critically ill and who consume vast amounts of attention and resources, who would be infectious and shed virus for longer periods of time, would be reduced,” he said.

He suggested taking this time to begin an exercise and diet regimen, get adequate sleep, and find ways to reduce stress. If you have a chronic health condition, work to manage it as much as possible.

And whether you believe in a conspiracy theory related to COVID-19 or not, Hirsch said his day-to-day reality of treating COVID-19 patients proves that the new coronavirus is wreaking havoc on Americans lives.

“There is something about this visceral experience of working in a hospital, worrying about something as simple as masks, gloves, and testing equipment running out over the next couple of weeks,” he said.

“There are people who are not up to accepting that reality, and to make up myths to protect their worldviews does a disservice to them and to all of us. One of the challenges of this virus is to accept some humble wisdom about who we are, about our mortality and vulnerability in this world, and that our health is dependent on the health of our global neighbors on the planet.”


Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.