CORONAVIRUS

Should I wear a mask? Is it safe to get gas? Here are answers to common coronavirus questions

Jared Clark wears a face mask March 27 while he straightens merchandise on the shelves at Gary's Foods, 715 First Avenue
Jared Clark wears a face mask March 27 while he straightens merchandise on the shelves at Gary’s Foods, 715 First Avenue S, in Mount Vernon. The grocery store has special hours for senior citizens, pregnant women and others with difficulties. Workers also disinfect carts and common surfaces at checkout aisles. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As more people become sick from the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, scientists also are gaining a better understanding of the virus and guidelines are evolving.

To help answer questions from readers as new information emerges, The Gazette pored through local and national recommendations and put some of the top quandaries to University of Iowa Health Care and its Chief Medical Officer Theresa Brennan.

The illness

Q: Can you provide an updated list of symptoms?

A: Confirmed COVID-19 patients have reported a range of mild to severe symptoms, according to UIHC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the illness’ onset, 83 to 98 percent report a fever; 46 to 82 percent report a cough; 11 to 44 percent report fatigue; and 31 percent report shortness of breath.

Less common symptoms include sputum production, headache and coughing up blood Some patients have had gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea and nausea before developing a fever and respiratory problems.

Q: Who is most at-risk?

A: Patients of all ages — including those with or without underlying health conditions — have suffered severe illness from the coronavirus. But older patients and those with chronic medical conditions appear at greater risk, according to UIHC and the CDC.

Q: How quick can COVID-19 symptoms start after exposure?

A: The CDC believes symptoms could appear between two and 14 days from exposure.

Using masks

Q: When and where do I need to wear one?

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A: The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are hard to maintain, like at grocery stores.

Q: Who is my mask protecting — me or others?

A: “The mask is source protection,” Brennan said. “What that means is if I have COVID, and I have a mask on, that protects people I come in contact with. So if everyone wears a mask, then people who might be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic or have minimal symptoms that don’t know that they have COVID will be protecting others by wearing the mask.”

Q: What can qualify as a “mask?”

A: There are a range of masks used in health care from the best, N95s, to surgical masks, which also are good. Those protect the people wearing them and others, Brennan said. But those should be conserved for health care workers, as they’re in short supply.

Homemade cloth masks are the kind the public is advised to use, and they offer some protection to the community, Brennan said.

Q: How should I wear a homemade mask?

A: “It should go under your chin to the bridge of your nose,” Brennan said. “And as far out on the sides of your face as it can. And likely better if it is a bit tighter than if it’s looser. So if you have one that you tie, it may be better than one that goes around your ears — depending on how well it fits.”

Additionally, she said, if you’re fashioning your own, use something that allows you to form it around your nose. And don’t keep touching it.

“When you put something on your face and you’re not used to having it on your face, humans have a tendency to touch it,” she said. “The purpose of the mask to be helpful, but if you’re touching it and then touching your eyes, and if you don’t be careful when you take it off, and you don’t launder it adequately …,” Brennan, said the mask can do more harm than good.

Q: Do I need to wear a mask outside?

A: “The purpose of masking is to do it when you’re with other people,” Brennan said. “So if you’re going outside and you know you’re going to be walking in a space where you’re going to encounter other people, it’s probably a good idea.”

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If you’re in your own backyard and you’re not around anybody, “You could probably take the mask off.”

At home or work

Q: Do people need to “social distance” — and stay 6 feet from others — in their own homes, like with family members?

A: There is some risk to not doing so, Brennan said, even for those who aren’t going out.

“If you potentially have something delivered to your home, all surfaces have potential to carry the virus, depending on where they’ve been and who’s been around them,” she said. “But if you’re being very careful and not interacting with people and wiping down your groceries and doing all those careful things, then maybe not social distancing in your house.

“But if you’re going out into the public, there is potential for someone in the household to bring it in,” she said. “And then that spread could happen.”

Q: So do I have to keep up the frequent hand-washing in my home, even if no one is sick?

A: “I would say yes,” Brennan said. “Hand washing is a habit that people do, and it’s hard to turn habits on and off. And so if you want to have good habits when you’re in a public space, you probably should have those same habits everywhere.”

Plus, she said, if you or someone in your home is going out in public — or bringing things in from outside — “then hand hygiene, of course, is really important there, too.”

Q: How off limits are parks? Are just playgrounds a no-no?

A: “The emergency declaration from the governor was really aimed at two things,” Brennan said. “One is to stop having people aggregate.”

The other, she said, is to keep people from touching common surfaces, like playground equipment. But Brennan also stressed the importance of getting outside during this time for physical and mental health.

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Q: Regarding restaurants offering delivery or takeout, are local health departments continuing to conduct health and safety inspections?

A: The Department of Inspection and Appeals has recommended all routine inspections cease, although the Johnson County Department of Public Health still is doing inspections on complaints.

Q: Is it safe to pump gas?

A: “Anytime you’re touching a surface there’s some risk,” Brennan said. “And many people pump gas every day, so it is a surface that’s touched by a lot of people.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get gas, she said, but be aware — use hand sanitizer before and after, for example.

Q: How much more at-risk are “essential workers,” like those in groceries stores or public safety departments?

A: “We’re so thankful for them,” Brennan said. “Because if they weren’t there, we’d really be in a terrible bit of shape.”

Although she doesn’t have exact numbers, Brennan said those who can avoid interacting with others and touching common surfaces have “much lower risk.”

“Anyone who is encountering someone in the public, given that it is pretty widely spread in community transmission now, they have some risk.”

Q: Am I going to get it no matter what?

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A: “I don’t think that’s true,” Brennan said. “It is out there in the community, but you can do a lot of things to keep yourself safe. And if you really practice those things, I think you can keep yourself safe.”

Patient care

Q: How effective are ventilators at helping hospitalized COVID-19 patients?

A: “Ventilators are used when patients can’t adequately get oxygen into their blood by themselves or can’t get rid of the byproducts that we make that we blow off when we breathe,” Brennan said. “And when a patient isn’t able to do that, ventilators are lifesaving.”

But, she said, this virus attacks not only the lungs but the heart — risking multi-organ failure, including the kidneys.

“So ventilators really are successful in treating the breathing part of the disease,” she said. But “there are times when ventilators become inadequate, and then there’s not a lot of great options.”

Q: Have you found any treatments to be effective in hospitalized COVID-19 patients?

A: “We have used Remdesivir, the anti-viral medication, in some patients,” Brennan said, explaining that UIHC was allowed to begin using that drug without formal federal approval on a “compassionate use” basis.

“Meaning we don’t have anything else to offer these patients and so the FDA approves us to do something that’s not been approved by the FDA — so compassionate use,” she said, explaining UIHC also is participating in a Remdesivir trial for use in more patients.

“It’s really too soon to tell if it works, but it seems promising.”

UIHC, additionally, is close to using plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients to help those currently hospitalized with the disease.

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“They’re presently working on getting it up and running and have identified patients who potentially could be donors,” Brennan said. “So hopefully that will be something that we’ll be able to use soon.”

Q: What are things COVID-19 patients recovering at home can do to hurry their healing?

A: “The most important thing that we’re finding with them is really they need to maintain good hydration,” she said. “The patients that don’t are the ones that are getting admitted.”

Many COVID-19 patients have experienced a bad taste and lack of smell, making it difficult to eat or drink. And while eating is important, Brennan said, “Probably much more important is that they continue to drink and to get good fluids in — whether that is water or Gatorade or some electrolyte drink — just continuing to replenish.”

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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.