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Coronavirus Mailbag: How long should we expect to be social distancing?

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Mar. 30, 2020 at 9:33 p.m.

Editor’s note: These answers are based on interviews and information current as of the time of publication. Please be aware that new information may be discovered by health experts after publication. We’re working to keep this information as up-to-date as possible.

SALT LAKE CITY — We’re starting to get a better picture of COVID-19 in Utah. As of Monday, 806 state residents or visitors had contracted the novel coronavirus and four residents had died from it, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Other statistics released by state officials Monday indicate the disease has affected younger Utahns the most, but older Utahns have suffered heavier complications from it. About 87% of Utah’s confirmed cases, so far, involve people under the age of 65, including 42% of cases involving people between the ages of 25 and 44 and 15% involving people 24 years old or younger, Gov. Gary Herbert said during a press conference Monday.

However, those between age zero and 44 only have accounted for 21% of hospitalizations. The other 79% of hospitalized patients have been people 45 years old or older, Herbert said. Luckily, the number of cases that have required hospitalization remain low. The governor stated that about 8% of Utah’s cases have resulted in hospitalization. If the disease were to spread rapidly, especially toward more vulnerable people, he pointed out the state only has a little more than 500 intensive care unit beds.

"Don’t delude yourself by thinking because you’re younger that you’re not more susceptible to the coronavirus," he said, adding that younger Utahns may be the key to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

That’s why he issued a "Stay Safe, Stay Home" directive on Friday. It encourages people to stay home as much as possible and to only travel for essential needs. That, in turn, could slow the spread of the coronavirus.

"If everyone participates, we’ll have hospital beds for those who need it," he added.

To this point, the national situation has been more severe. There were more than 160,000 cases and 3,000 deaths in the U.S. as of Monday evening, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Global Cases count.

We’ve all learned so much about COVID-19 over the past few weeks — which have felt more like months — but we know you still have questions about the coronavirus, safety measures and other things related to it. So, here are answers we’ve found to some of the questions you’ve asked us about COVID-19.

What is the best thing I should do to save myself and others?

Stay at home. It’s why Herbert issued that directive. If you are outside for essential needs, practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from other people, as the disease is believed to be mostly spread from close contact with infected people. Social distancing has been the recommendation from health experts in Utah and throughout the world as the pandemic has spread.

So, why are government leaders pushing this message across early and often? It’s because it’s basically the only recommendation that’s known to work at this time, Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn explained during a press conference on Wednesday.

"Without a vaccine or without treatment, social distancing really is our only way to prevent additional cases and deaths in Utah," she said.

How long will social distancing last?

The downside of social distancing and shutting everything down, of course, is the impact that has on the economy. About 3.2 million Americans sought unemployment aid in the first week of mass shutdowns nationwide alone, according to a U.S. Labor Department report released on Thursday. Utah’s Department of Workforce Services reported about 20,000 new claims that same week. That economic impact led Congress to pass, and President Donald Trump to sign a record $2.2 trillion recovery package last week.

In a recent press conference, Trump also said he hoped most of the U.S. would begin opening back up by Easter, which is April 12, though by Sunday, he'd backed away from that and extended his social distancing guidelines to April 30. That said, state and federal health experts have insisted over the past few weeks that it’s difficult to come up with exact dates for things to safely come to an end.

So, we asked Dunn the next best thing during a press conference on Friday: What needs to happen before the state ends social distancing recommendations and we begin a return to normalcy here in Utah?

"When we’re talking about social distancing measures, the point of them is to limit the number of people a sick person could potentially infect, and that decreases the burden on our health care system," she said. "So the less sick people we have overall, the less severe sick people we have, and our health care systems can provide quality care to those who need it most.

"And so, in public health and epidemiology, we really look for that consistent decline in cases before we start loosening up social distancing measures," she continued. "That’s why every day we’re looking at the number of cases, where they are, the rate of increase and try to project when that will start decreasing. But we’ll wait until that starts decreasing before we recommend lifting social distancing."

So, is there an exact number from the department’s data that will signal when this might happen? Not right now, Dunn said.

"We can’t say that right now because we don’t know what our peak is," she added. "It’s going to depend on when it starts turning the corner and start decreasing — when we can identify our peak, and then we can make those recommendations."

The number of cases in Utah has increased daily since the state began posting confirmed case numbers online on March 13, so we’re not out of the woods yet. That said, there are two positive signs from the data:

  1. Utah’s increase hasn’t been dramatic. As of Monday, the highest jump over the past seven reports was 25%, which came when the health department announced 122 new cases on Saturday. The six other days have been below 20%. In fact, when it reported 87 new cases Monday, that was the lowest rate increase (12%) the department had reported since the daily reports first came out.
  2. Early numbers show how the disease has spread in Utah. Only about 10% of Utah cases are a result of community spread, which can be described as experts not knowing how the patient was exposed to the disease, Dunn said on Monday.

"So we’re not growing as fast as our neighboring states," Dunn said. "That means social distancing is working, and the point of social distancing is, yes, to keep you safe and healthy, but also to prevent you from potentially infecting others who, if they got COVID-19, they would have to go to the hospital and receive a high level of medical care. So by adhering to social distancing, you are allowing our health care providers to provide quality, safe care to those who need it most and you’re keeping our precious resources of ICU beds, ventilators and even general hospital beds available for those who are going to need that high level of care."


What is the difference between social distancing, stay at home and lockdown?

This is a good question, and it should be pointed out that the reader asked this before Herbert issued his "Stay Safe, Stay Home" directive on Friday. That directive came after Summit County officials issued a stay-at-home order and before Salt Lake and Wasatch counties issued similar stay-at-home measures.

It can get confusing, especially when different states and countries have different measures in place to try and stop the spread of COVID-19.

Here’s a brief breakdown of all three:

  • Social distancing: As mentioned above, this is separating ourselves from each other in public spaces both inside homes or business and outdoors.
  • Stay at home: Lumping in Herbert’s directive, this is mostly asking for people to stay at home unless they are leaving for essential travel — such as going to the grocery store or heading to an essential place of work. If you do leave your home, you’re asked to follow social distancing measures.
  • Lockdown: A lockdown, on the other hand, might mean not being able to leave your home unless you have an approved reason, or having a curfew. For example, in Italy the lockdown required police permission to leave for valid reasons, according to Business Insider.

If you get COVID-19, how long do symptoms last?

We’ve known for a few weeks about the incubation period. It was brought up by a reader’s question in the first mailbag. The range for symptoms to first appear is still believed to be between 2-14 days. And this question is something health experts are still piecing together from confirmed cases.

"Right now, it looks like symptoms last anywhere from five days to a couple of weeks, depending on the severity," Dunn said. "But there is a big range there. As we kind of wrap up this pandemic in the coming months, we’ll be able to have more information about what it looks like."

How many Utahns have recovered from COVID-19?

This has been a common question we’d received as the number of cases has risen. We know there are some recoveries; Utah Jazz players Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert each announced last week they’ve been cleared, but we don’t know how many have recovered overall. In fact, we may never have a 100% accurate number for recoveries — or even cases for that matter.

In a way, that’s actually a good thing. That’s because most of Utah’s cases, to this point, haven’t required hospitalization and therefore there’s less data available on when someone has recovered.

"Over 80% of our cases nationally, and 90% of our cases in this state, recover on their own at home without needing any medical intervention," Dunn said on Monday. "But because of that, we don’t have accurate numbers, in terms of actual recovery numbers, because so many people are just recovering on their own — which is fantastic."

Dunn added that the health department uses mortality rate and the number of cases confirmed per tests conducted as markers for the severity of a disease.

"Right now, at four deaths and a 5% positive rate, the severity is low in Utah. But those social distancing measures are contributing to that," she said.

However, we may soon get a clearer understanding about the number of people who have been hospitalized and the number released from a hospital. Herbert said more numbers and data, such as hospitalization rate, will be posted on the state’s website as early as Tuesday.

Is a sore throat part of the symptoms?

Maybe. The top symptoms of COVID-19 remain fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They say medical attention should be sought if you have trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, or have bluish lips or face.

Keep in mind, scientists are still learning about this disease on the fly since this is brand new to everyone. There are some other symptoms medical experts are learning about, especially in mild cases of the disease. The Harvard Medical School has compiled a list of other symptoms people with COVID-19 have reported. They include low-grade fever, body aches, nasal congestion, sore throat and loss of smell.

Sore throat, however, is also a known symptom of other things such as the common cold or postnasal drip, so unless you’re exhibiting more symptoms of the coronavirus, sore throat shouldn’t be an immediate cause for concern.

Is there a way to tell if you've already had it?

Not yet. William Hillmann, associate in-patient physician director at Massachusetts General Hospital, told The Guardian on March 23: "At this point, we don’t have a test to tell that. We are developing antibody tests to check for a prior infection, but those aren’t ready for clinical use yet. The only definitive way to know that you’ve had it is to get tested while you have it and to have that test be positive."

What kind of protection would homemade masks give?

The state health department began seeking donations for personal protective equipment, or PPE, last week, but this left out homemade equipment. The same goes for Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health, as reported last week.

Another way to ask this question might be: Are homemade masks still useful? The scientific answer to that might as well just be that it’s better than nothing.

In a 2013 study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, researchers found that standard surgical masks were "three times more effective in blocking transmission than the homemade mask."

"Our findings suggest that a homemade mask should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals, but it would be better than no protection," the researchers said.

If I don't cover my nose and my mouth, is it OK?

No. Health experts have continuously said the fastest way for COVID-19 to spread is through droplets from coughing and sneezing, especially if someone else is within 6 feet of you. They suggest everyone cough or sneeze into their elbow. If you find yourself coughing and sneezing a lot, it’s probably just best to stay inside.

I've heard that ibuprofen can worsen symptoms. Is that true? What should people take instead?

Dunn answered this on Friday, acknowledging that she’s seen similar concerns on social media about ibuprofen.

"CDC and (World Health Organization) guidance and the scientific evidence we have shows no interaction between ibuprofen and COVID-19," she said.

The CDC’s website states prevention is the best remedy for the coronavirus and there aren’t many clear answers for drugs to take. Dunn also said people should be wary of anything online claiming to be a "magic bullet for COVID-19."

"We’re working to establish the validity of certain medications," she said. If you contract COVID-19, it’s best to consult your doctor or another local health expert for what you should take to treat symptoms.

If we owe in federal taxes, will we still get a stimulus check?

As a part of that aforementioned $2.2 trillion COVID-19 recovery package, Americans will see a check in the mail (or direct deposit). And you will still get a check if you owe back taxes or other debts, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who helped draft the bill.

"The bill turns off nearly all administrative offsets that ordinarily may reduce tax refunds for individuals who have past tax debts, or who are behind on other payments to federal or state governments, including student loan payments," Grassley wrote in a Medium post that answered frequently asked questions about the bill.

There is one stipulation that would cause someone to not receive a check. Grassley added the bill does prohibit checks to those who owe child support payments that states have forwarded to the U.S. Treasury Department.

If you have questions about the new coronavirus, please submit them to the Google response form below for future installments.

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