CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus Q&A with University of Iowa experts

How careful should you be at the grocery store?

Signage is posted outside a virus screening checkpoint outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City
Signage is posted outside a virus screening checkpoint outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Digesting nonstop news about the novel coronavirus can be overwhelming, leaving many with unanswered questions about ways it affects their lives, how it could impact their health and what it might mean for their future.

The Gazette tapped two University of Iowa Health Care experts for answers to questions — some suggested by readers — that have gone without widely disseminated answers. UIHC Chief Medical Officer Theresa Brennan and UIHC family medicine physician Katie Imborek, who also directs the UIHC off-site primary care, are the sources for these answers:

Q: What is the UI doing as far as COVID-19 testing goes?

A: The university began conducting its own testing last week, which Brennan during a live Q&A on Facebook said is reassuring in its ability to quickly tell whether someone needs to be isolated. The test involves a swab in the back of the throat, and the UIHC turnaround time can be as quick as four to six hours, Brennan said. “We have been able to test more people, which is a good thing.”

Q: How many COVID-19 patients currently are at UIHC?

A: As of Monday morning, the hospital had five inpatients.

Q: Are deliveries of mail, packages or newspapers safe — or can the virus be transmitted on those surfaces?

A: Brennan said experts don’t know for sure, and that uncertainty can be uncomfortable. But her advice for mail, for example, is to “put it aside if you don’t need to open it” right away. “Let it sit, so if there’s any potential that it had contact with someone with COVID-19, that there’s a chance for that virus to die before you have to take care of it.” And, she said, wash your hands after touching something from the outside.

Q: Should we worry about bringing in the disease via our shoes?

A: When you come into your home, according to Brennan, take off your shoes — especially those who have been in a hospital or clinic setting, but including people who went to the grocery store or other public setting. “Anything you can avoid bringing into your house is a good idea,” she said.

Q: How long can the virus live on surfaces?

A: A precise answer isn’t known yet, but Brennan said scientists strongly believe that virus isn’t spread through the air but rather through droplets — like when someone coughs. The virus via those droplets can live for hours on a surface — although the length of time seems to vary by type of surface.

Q: How careful should we be at the grocery store?

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A: Definitely wipe down the carts, according to Brennan. And do a thorough job washing produce when you get home. Additionally, she suggested, if possible leave non-perishable items untouched for a while to give any potential trace of the virus time to die. And always wash your hands after touching those items.

Q: Is ordering takeout food safe?

A: The virus is sensitive to heat and can be killed easily through cooking, but the packaging is a risk because an infected person could have touched it.

Q: Is it safe to go outside?

A: Both Brennan and Imborek stressed it’s not only safe to go outside but healthy to go outside for exercise and fresh air. But both also said social distancing remains important outside — so keep at least 6 feet of distance from other people. “The other thing that I would be cautious of is sitting on benches and touching things,” Imborek said. “Because we know that coronavirus can actually live on surfaces for hours.”

Q: What does “flattening the curve” mean and why is it important?

A: Some estimates show 30 percent of the population might get infected — other estimates are higher at between 50 and 70 percent — and Imborek said the goal is to spread out those infections so there isn’t a huge spike in the middle that overwhelms the health care system. “When you have people that are infected and people that become ill over five or six months, our health system can handle that,” she said. But, according to Imborek, when a large percentage of people get sick in just weeks, that’s when hospitals start running out of beds, ventilators and providers capable of caring for them. “So that’s what the top of that curve is — it’s how many people are infected,” she said. “And then that X axis is the length of time. So you need to flatten it. It might end up being the same number that is infected, but if we can do it over a year, and if we can do things like make a vaccine and then really change the course of it, we’re going to be a whole lot better off than if we get hit all at once over three or four weeks.”

Q: How long does it take between picking up the virus and when symptoms appear?

A: Brennan said a lot remains unknown but recent research has indicated an average of five days between when someone comes into contact and gets the virus from someone with COVID-19 and starts to develop symptoms. But it can vary from between three and 10 days.

Q: How should people handle their non-COVID-19-related health care?

A: “If you need to be seen, then you should be seen,” Brennan said. But clinicians have been reaching out to patients with non-essential appointments to ask if they’d like to reschedule, and some have been. Physicians also have been seeing more patients through virtual visits, or touching base over the phone.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.