Separating fact from fiction
Disclaimer: I am not on the frontlines taking care of CVOID 19 patients, nor am I involved in basic or clinical research on coronavirus and its effects. Having said that, I do receive communications from doctors and researchers as well as governmental and non-governmental medical organizations that I view through the lens of more than 45 years experience as a basic and clinical investigator and practicing immunologist.
To help you know if you are receiving the most current, valid information about COVID-19, I want to share with you some of the false medical claims that are circulating. Many of the websites and accounts might look legitimate, but it’s important to recognize the ongoing widespread, deliberate misinformation campaigns across the internet. While some of the recommendations out there may seem harmless, some can actually cause direct harm. The sheer volume of these distracting messages tragically dilutes the important public health messaging that we should all be following. Because new valid, scientific information is coming in every day, recommendations can become out of date just as fast.
Before you buy into the misinformation online, understand what’s true and be aware of what’s not.
False Medical Claims
• Claims of supplements, vitamins or foods that ‘boost immunity’ are rampant, including those from medical professionals and large health care organizations. Despite the flood of claims that a food supplement or nutrient will boost the immune system, it is not possible to improve a person’s resistance to infection with a food, food supplement or vitamin.
• Specific COVID-19 treatments (all unproven) are being touted or sold, including essential oils, supplements, colloidal silver, vitamin C, elderberry, homeopathy and chiropractic adjustments. There are no proven treatments at this time and some of the suggested treatments can cause problems (essential oils – respiratory symptoms, colloidal silver – permanent blue staining of the skin, high dose vitamin C – kidney stones)
• False claims of COVID-19 vaccines are being offered online.
• Common themes include making claims based on limited laboratory/animal data, information from small scientifically invalid studies, unfounded pseudoscientific explanations and anecdotal reports.
I recommend that you use these simple fact-checking questions for any questionable claims:
• What are the qualifications of the person making the claim?
• Does the claimed evidence for treatments discuss both benefits and risks?
• Is the person making the claim directly profiting from services or products?
• Can you identify a physical location for person/organization making the claim?
• Can you communicate by email or phone with the organization?
• How can this apply to my specific situation, including factors pertaining to my medical history and possible interaction with medications or underlying conditions?
While asthma is a very diverse condition with various levels of severity, the CDC and W.H.O list asthma, in general, as a risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes.
It’s important to understand that data from China and Seattle both indicate that asthma was not a risk factor for patients with severe COVID-19 infections. More recent information suggests that patients with moderate to severe asthma, especially those with uncontrolled asthma, may be at slightly increased risk of hospitalization than the general population. If there is any doubt, contact your physician to help you understand your asthma-related risk according to your personal history.
Early reports of systemic corticosteroids being associated with death from COVID-19 are being generalized to include all steroids as being dangerous. However, it is important for you to know that your inhaled corticosteroids are safe and necessary. You should continue to use your inhaler in order to prevent worsening asthma. Understand that while steroids should not be used to treat COVID-19, systemic corticosteroids can and should be used to treat an asthma attack, even if it is caused by COVID-19.
Online discussions of nebulizers (home breathing machines) are causing confusion for some because of claims that a person can catch COVID-19 from using a nebulizer. This would only be true if a CVOID-19 patient had used the nebulizer before you. If you require treatment with nebulized medications, such as albuterol or Atrovent due to asthma, you should start treatment early and follow your Asthma Action Plan. COVID-19 does not ‘live’ inside nebulizers.
Information is circulating online that patients with severe COVID-19 infection experience a cytokine storm. Some social media posts imply that anyone with underlying ‘inflammation’, including allergic conditions, is at risk for this cytokine storm if they become ill with COVID-19. The cytokines primarily involved in allergy are not part of the COVID-19 cytokine storm.
There is no evidence to suggest that nasal allergy, asthma, eczema, hives, food allergies, or a history of severe allergic reactions places you at risk for severe outcomes if you become sick with COVID-19.
Conspiracy theories are a constant presence on social media and underlie many of the anti-vaccine and pseudoscientific claims online. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified some of the fringe groups making such claims. Here are some common themes have circulated that may impair your judgment and affect your medical decision-making.
• The claim of a COVID-19 media hoax aligns with political ideologies and is leading many to continue to gather in large groups or disregard risk reduction through social distancing. There is now strong evidence from other countries that social distancing really works.
• Another campaign states “doctors are lying” based on people who drive to their hospital and take pictures of empty parking lots or waiting rooms then claim that there are no sick patients with COVID-19 and this is being falsely amplified. North Texas won’t see its COVID-19 peak for another week or two and all health care providers have worked intensively to prepare.
• Vaccine development/COVID-19 treatment is believed by some to be unnecessarily delayed while the vaccine candidates are tested in clinical trials to demonstrate their safety, effectiveness and dosing. These trials are crucial to show that the vaccine works and doesn’t cause harm.
• Policy makers and even some medical professionals are making recommendations to skip these necessary steps and start using various treatments, including hydroxychloroquine, on a wide scale. Without scientifically valid trials we could be providing risky but useless medications that could do more harm than good. It’s vital to understand the critical steps involved in drug and vaccine discovery and comprehend the timeline, expectations, and why some early claims will not pan out.
Be careful about ads flourishing on social media and even by direct email, from alleged suppliers of personal protective equipment (PPE). Some of these are legitimate and some do provide the materials -— but at exorbitant costs. Some are outright scams that take your money, but do not provide the goods. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for reliable information on self-protection.
Free, reliable information
The most trustworthy, scientifically based information is available in English and Spanish from the CDC – https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/
Richard L. Wasserman, M.D., Ph.D. is a practicing allergist/immunologist at Allergy Partners of North Texas, www.allergypartners/northtexas and www.dallasallergy.net.