Questions from consitutents and answers from Rep. Kim Schrier, M.D. from the March 23rd Telephone Town Hall.
Is there a cure for COVID-19?
There is no cure yet and I want to really be clear about this. President Trump has talked about a chloroquine, for example, as being a potential cure. That is very misleading and threatens to harm people. Chloroquine is a medication that is used to treat malaria. It is used frequently in other countries. Hydroxychloroquine, which is just a variation, is used for people with autoimmune disorders, like lupus. The danger here is that we don't have much hydroxycholoquine and it has not been proven to be effective against COVID-19. Congress has appropriated abundant funding toward researching the impact of FDA-approved drugs to see if they can be used to fight COVID-19. That research is underway, but there are no conclusive results yet.
There's a saying in medicine that “all medications are poisons if you get them in the wrong dose.” Please do not fall prey to misinformation. Use trusted sources of information. The best thing you can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is stay home, practice social distancing, wash your hands, not touch your face, and protect the most vulnerable.
What is the time frame for getting a vaccine?
It will take somewhere between 12 and 18 months to develop a vaccine. Research and development for a vaccine is already happening. Congress has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to vaccine development because ultimately, that is how we are going to protect our community. 12 to 18 months is a long time, but before we can start giving the vaccine widely, we need to ensure it's safe and effective. Multiple companies are working on development, including Kaiser, right here in Washington state.
Some people have had the virus and don’t know it--is anyone working on an antibody test to learn retroactively who has had it?
Many people are wondering if you can retroactively test for COVID-19. We are able to check for the presence of certain anti-bodies with a titer test. For example, if you wanted to know if you ever had chicken pox, you can get a blood test that looks for chicken pox antibodies in your blood, which should be there for your whole life. Currently, scientists are working on developing a titer test for coronavirus because it will be important to know, especially with asymptomatic or barely symptomatic people, who has already had this disease and recovered. It's going to be critical for determining who and when people can get back to work, and who, for this season at least, doesn't have to worry about getting it again.
Determining who had COVID-19 could also help with treatment using antibodies. You can harness those antibodies by giving them to people who are very sick to help their bodies fight the disease.
Can you get re-infected?
For people who have been ill with the virus and then recovered, we don’t really know whether they are immune after recovering. If the coronavirus behaves like most viruses, then you will probably be immune, at least for the current season. We know that coronavirus, just like flu viruses, can mutate or change slightly from year to year. That's why you and I get a flu shot every year that is slightly different than the year before. My best-informed opinion right now is that once you have recovered from this season's coronavirus, you should be immune this season.
How are the direct payments going to work?
In the recently passed CARES Act, Congress included a one-time payment to individuals and families. For a family of four earning under $150,000 a year, there will be a one-time cash payment of $3,400. Individually, those earning less than $75,000 a year get a $1,200 check, no questions asked. This is not a loan; it does not have to be repaid and it will not be taxed. For each child under the age of 17, there’s an accompanying $500 check. Congress is looking to build in ways to have this recur if necessary, depending on the duration of this crisis. The benefit slowly decreases for those who earn between $75,000 and $99,000 a year. Individuals making more than this do not qualify.
Checks will be distributed either by direct deposit or by a physical check. If you have paid your taxes and asked for you tax refund by direct deposit, then the IRS has your bank information and will distribute it that way. If the IRS doesn’t have your bank information, you can go to the IRS website (https://www.irs.gov/) and give them your direct deposit information. Otherwise, you will get a check in the mail.
How long can the virus survive on surfaces? What precautions should be taken when shopping or going outside?
Many people are curious about whether this virus is airborne and how long it can stay in the air. While we don’t have all the answers, there are a couple of things we do know. There are certain diseases that are clearly airborne, like measles. If someone walks through a room and has measles, anyone who walks in that room for the next 3 hours can get measles. This virus is not that contagious. We think it is mostly spread by droplets, either directly which is why we try to distance 6 feet away, or droplets from someone sneezing and it gets on a surface and somebody touches that surface and then their nose or eyes.
However, there is evidence that if someone with COVID-19 coughs very hard, the virus may linger in the air a little bit – we just don’t know how long. The bottom line is, go ahead and go to the supermarket. Try not to touch a lot of surfaces and touch your face when you do. Don’t linger in any public place longer than you need. Think about the fact that the groceries you’re buying have been touched by a lot of other people- they’ve been touched by people stocking the shelves and maybe other customers. When you come home, I would strongly consider taking a Clorox wipe or a cloth dipped in some dilute bleach solution and just wiping off those boxes and containers before they come into your house, your cupboards, or your refrigerator.
I also want to make a plea to people out there that you should not be hoarding. Nobody needs to have countless containers of Clorox wipes or hand sanitizer, for example. It is really, really important that places like senior living facilities have access to these supplies.
Why aren’t we testing everyone?
Congress has passed legislation to make testing free and yet we’re finding that there just aren’t enough test kits available. We didn’t think that the limiting factor would be test kit availability.
People can have COVID-19 and still be spreading this virus for an average of five days before they show symptoms, if they ever show symptoms. The only way to prevent those asymptomatic people or pre-symptomatic people from spreading it would be to test the entire population. In an ideal world, you could test everybody. But we simply don't have enough tests to do that. And even with the thousands of tests that we have available now, we don't have the personnel to do that many tests.
This is extremely frustrating. For moment, you have to assume that if you are ill, it might be COVID-19. Before we panic, we should remember that 80% of people will recover. And the ones who need to be tested are either health care workers who are taking care of others and could contaminate the healthcare setting or people who are at higher risk of having to be hospitalized, such as the elderly people and those with underlying health conditions.
Are hospitals getting the equipment and resources they need?
Congress initially authorized $8.2 billion dollars to ensure our hospitals and medical centers have the supplies they need on the front lines of this crisis. More recently, the CARES package includes $150 billion for the health care industry. $100 billion of that is to help our hospitals and health care workers who are underwater. Right now, I’m in contact nearly every day with the state, federal government and hospitals to make sure we get necessary personal protective equipment to keep frontline health workers safe and have the equipment needed to meet the anticipated surge. While we have gotten several shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile, I know PPE supplies have been a big problem. We have to do everything we can to rebuild supply chains and enhance domestic manufacturing so our hospitals have what they need.
It is difficult to isolate ourselves because we are social beings. One way we can cope with being separated from friends and loved ones is to get a little fresh air. Go outside and take a walk. As long as you are keeping your distance from other people, it is safe. Staying active will keep you healthy.
It is important to stay in touch with family and friends. It helps us to connect with others even if we're physically distant. For those struggling with your mental health, I encourage you to use the resources and hotlines designed to address this need.
Many people, including children, can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. However, these people can still spread COVID-19 to family and friends. This is especially concerning for those who may be in contact with their grandparents or people with weakened immune systems. That’s why practicing social distancing is so important right now.
Do we know when it will be safe to lift the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order? When will things go back to normal?
The idea is that we recognize people will get this illness and we want to protect the most vulnerable and flatten the curve. This is important so that we don't overwhelm our hospitals and ICU services, or exceed our supply of ventilators and other supplies.
We will know soon if our stay home, stay healthy measures are working. Right now, please stay home as much as possible. Be prepared for a prolonged stay at home. As we get more reassurance either in the form of treatments or by figuring out how to help people get recover from this illness better, we'll be able to relax some of those recommendations.
It is also important during this time to stay informed. I want people to get their information from reliable sources, such as the CDC and your local health departments.