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What We Need to Understand About Asymptomatic Carriers if We’re Going to Beat Coronavirus

North America

ProPublica’s health reporter Caroline Chen explains what the conversation around asymptomatic coronavirus carriers is missing, and what we need to understand if we’re going to beat this nefarious virus together.

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., around the last week of February, I joked to a colleague that maybe now, finally, people would learn how to wash their hands properly. My remark revealed a naive assumption I had at the time, which was that all we needed to do to keep the novel coronavirus contained was follow a few simple guidelines: stay home when symptomatic and maintain good personal hygiene. The problem, I thought, was that nobody was following the rules.

In the past few weeks, however, more and more reports have emerged to challenge my neat assumptions. Seven out of 14 NBA players, coaches and staff who tested positive didn’t have symptoms when they were diagnosed, The Wall Street Journal reported. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a case study on a nursing facility in King County, Washington, where 23 residents tested positive for COVID-19, and it found that 13 reported no symptoms initially. Sixty singers went to rehearsal and followed all the rules, according to the Los Angeles Times — nobody hugged, shook hands or appeared ill — yet three weeks later, 45 were diagnosed with COVID-19 or had symptoms of the disease, and two have died.

With articles about “silent spreaders” and “stealth transmission” flying across the internet, friends were starting to text me: Was it still OK to go for a walk with a friend, even 6 feet apart? Or should all interaction be avoided? Should we start wearing masks to the grocery store? At the same time, my colleagues were scrutinizing guidelines at various workplaces and agencies we cover: The New York City Fire Department told workers on March 19 they were to come to work, so long as they had no symptoms, even if they had had “close contact with someone who is a known positive COVID-19 patient,” according to a document obtained by ProPublica. Was that policy wise?

I decided to dive into the available data. What I discovered is that not only can people be infected and experience no symptoms or very mild symptoms for the first few days, but this coincides with when the so-called viral load — the amount of virus being emitted from an infected person’s cells — may be the highest. That makes the virus a truly formidable opponent in our densely packed, globally connected world. We’re going to have to be smarter than this virus to stay on top of it.

Continue reading on ProPublica. (long read but lots of good information)


Next Coronavirus in Mexico and the world, April 1: read the breaking news and positive cases here

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