By Allie Skalnik
As COVID-19 has begun to sweep the world during these past four months, an underlying lack of consistent information has only furthered fear of the deadly virus. In an effort to combat anxiety and bring more clarity to my own life, here are some of my top questions from these past weeks–and also some answers.
1. Am I really not at risk?
While it is true that the elderly (65+) and persons with pre-existing conditions are at a much higher risk for lasting effects of COVID-19, this does not mean these are the only groups affected. Obviously, it is everyone’s duty to practice social distancing to protect these most-at-risk groups, but additionally, young people are not completely free from risk. There have been rare cases of previously healthy and asymptomatic patients seeing severe damage to vital organs (specifically, the lungs). This is not to scare you! These cases are rare and seem to be the exception, not the rule. However, this is an example of how COVID-19 is absolutely not something to be taken lightly, and because of these possible, albeit unlikely, consequences, young people should not feel as if they are immune to COVID-19 just because they are at a far lower risk.
2. How long does flattening the curve take?
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of “flattening the curve”. Because of slow action in the US to react to COVID-19, there is no hope in stopping the virus from spreading completely. Social distancing, however, can spread out these outbreaks and help hospitals handle the flow of patients so that they can properly treat people. Now that University High School (and all other schools) are on eLearning platforms, an obvious question is: “how long will this last?” How long is appropriate to maintain social distance so that we flatten the curve? Unfortunately, there’s not a clear answer. A lot of this has to do with how well people adhere to social distancing practices and how well hospitals are able to handle the flow of patients. While it never feels good to be in the dark about things like this, one thing that has helped me has been reminding myself that everyone (and I mean everyone) is in the same boat at this point, and I rest easier knowing that the school and the adults in my life are doing their utmost to take care of us students.
3. When will we have a vaccine & do we need one?
Thirty-five companies have begun to work on a vaccine, and four of them are beginning testing. With essential testing of the vaccine, it should take at least eighteen months before a vaccine would be available to the public. This is for good reason, and there are regulations on what kind of testing vaccines have to undergo before they are allowed to be used on humans. If a vaccine will take eighteen months, though, that raises the question of whether it will even be needed by that time. According to The Guardian, “The pandemic, [speculates] Wilder-Smith, ‘will probably have peaked and declined before a vaccine is available’”.
4. Is it COVID-19 or Coronavirus?
While calling the disease Coronavirus is not at all inaccurate, Corona is a broad category of virus. You may have seen that there is a seasonal Coronavirus that hits every year. COVID-19 refers to this year’s (technically 2019 since it broke out in December) Coronavirus and cannot be mistaken for any other strain or form of the disease.
5. Why is hand-washing being emphasized so much?
We should all be washing our hands anyway, but it turns out that soap and hand sanitizer work especially well against COVID-19, more than would be true for other diseases. This is because COVID-19 cells are surrounded with a layer of fat. You may remember the lipid bilayer from Biology. COVID-19 cells have a lipid bilayer, too, and it protects the cell. Soap molecules have a hydrophobic (water-repelling) end and a hydrophilic (water-attracting) end. When you wash your hands (for 20 seconds!), the hydrophobic ends are attracted to the layer of fat protecting the cell, and the hydrophobic end is attracted to the water. That hydrophobic end gets buried in the lipid bilayer, and since the bilayer is not very strong, gets pulled apart as you wash your hands. Without the protection from the lipid bilayer, the cell is killed. Hand sanitizer acts in a similar way, but please keep in mind that hand-washing is still more effective.
6. Will COVID-19 mutate, meaning previously infected populations can be hit again?
COVID-19 is an RNA-based virus, meaning it has to copy its genetic code more often. This means that there are more opportunities for mutations to occur which alter the way the virus acts. Influenza is another RNA-based virus, which is why we have new strains (and new vaccines) every year. Compared to the Flu, we see one-third (to half) as many mutations in COVID-19. While scientists have observed COVID-19 mutating, there is no evidence that any of these changes alter the virus in any way we would find significant. Additionally, scientists speculate that because COVID-19 mutates so much slower, significant changes would take years, not months, to accumulate.
I hope this has been able to shed some light on COVID-19 and the efforts being made to protect us from it. From spending the time to research for this article, I’ve come to realize that a lot of the anxiety and fear I attribute with COVID-19 is actually coming from the uncertainty I feel since there are still so many questions left unanswered. To that I say, as long as I have questions, there will be people who are attempting to answer them. I encourage you to ask questions yourself. If you’re anything like me, asking a teacher or sibling or parent or even the internet (keeping reputable sources in mind, of course,) can go a long way towards mitigating the anxiety and fear that comes along with uncertainty. Eliminating fears entirely may be impossible in this case, but that’s alright.
As always, stay healthy, and stay safe!