On March 11, 2020, Gladstone hosted a town hall with Senior Investigators Warner Greene, MD, PhD, and Melanie Ott, MD, PhD, and Chief Operating Officer Robert Obana, MBA, to answer questions from the Gladstone community about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Below are their answers to some of the questions that were asked at the meeting.
How long can the Coronavirus survive on various surfaces?
Greene: Recent studies, published but not yet peer-reviewed, indicate that the coronavirus can survive on plastic and stainless steel for up to 2 to 3 days, on cardboard for 24 hours, and on copper for 4 hours. That means you should consider every doorknob potentially contaminated. Bottom line: keep your hands away from your face and wash your hands frequently, decontaminate your work space, your computer and keyboard, your phone, and figure out a good way to open doors that reduces your chances of contaminating your hands.
Are there extra precautions one should take if pregnant?
Ott: As far as we know today, there is no known risk to the fetus if the mother is affected with COVID-19, at least in late stages of the pregnancy, so this is very different from other illnesses like the Zika virus infection. But it is clear that pregnant women have a somewhat weakened immune system, so if you are pregnant you are generally more susceptible to infection (by any virus), and extra precautions should be taken. You should practice social distancing, and all the hygiene recommendations that are in place should be taken very seriously. Find out more about higher-risk populations.
Children don’t seem to be affected, is there a scientific reason for this?
Ott: Children don’t seem to develop very severe disease from this virus, which is good news, but they are infectible. That’s problematic because that means children may spread the virus very actively by being asymptomatic but infectious; we need to consider this as we try to contain the virus.
Greene: Although it’s not proven, sparing of children from COVID-19 might be linked to children being previously infected with the four coronaviruses that elicit the common cold and thus having a weak immunity to COVID-19. However, this is just a hypothesis that needs testing.
My mom is elderly and on Medi-Cal. Will she be able to be tested without it costing a fortune?
Obana: The situation is in flux and different states might handle it differently. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom announced measures last week to make medically requested testing free for more than 22 million Californians, including those on Medi-Cal.
Can someone get re-infected after clearing the infection?
Greene: If this virus is like most, there will be some level of protection after the first infection, but we don’t know yet.
Ott: There has been a report of someone testing positive, then negative, and then positive again for this coronavirus. But it is possible that this was due to a technical glitch, and this person was never really negative. But right now, we don’t know. Other coronaviruses don’t induce long-lasting immunity. And if the virus does not elicit lasting immunity, then a vaccine likely won’t either.
How does testing work and who can administer the test?
Ott: The test looks for the virus itself, not for antibodies against the virus. It is based on nasal swabs or pharyngeal (throat) swabs, which according to Chinese studies, is where there is the highest amount of virus. At first, all testing was centralized at the CDC, which is why it took so long for testing to become widespread. Now, the CDC is allowing more and more local laboratories to carry out the test. UCSF has developed a test for clinical use but capacity is limited. However, the numbers will increase, and testing will be more and more available. Currently, as testing is limited, a doctor has to approve it—for instance for people with clear symptoms or people who have been in close contact with an infected person.
Greene: As testing becomes more widespread, the number of confirmed cases will likely sharply increase. This should not be a cause for alarm; in fact, this is precisely the type of information we urgently need to better craft the most effective interventions to reduce further spread.
Most of the virus transmission occurs through close contact, in particular within families. By practicing social distancing and diligent hand-washing, you are protecting not only yourself but the people close to you as well.
Health care workers are at high risk of contracting the virus from the patients they treat. Even if they don’t become greatly ill, they will need to be quarantined, which will reduce the healthcare workforce. By staying home when you are sick, you avoid spreading disease and clogging up the health care system at a time when it risks being under heavy strain.