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Health, Science, Environment

Coronavirus in St. Louis: Answering Your Health And Safety Questions

St. Louis Public Radio is answering your health and safety questions about COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio is answering your health and safety questions about COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

Updated April 10

We’re answering your questions about health and the coronavirus in the St. Louis region.

Some of these answers about how to keep yourself and your neighbors safe during the pandemic may change in the coming weeks. We’ll post those changes here. Check our live blog and Twitter account for the latest updates. 

Don’t see your question answered below? Ask it here. And check out other coronavirus guides:

Can mosquitoes carry COVID-19?

There is no evidence that mosquitoes can spread the virus that causes COVID-19 or other coronavirus strains, such as MERS or SARS. The primary form of transmission is infected people spraying tiny droplets when they cough or sneeze. 

There are a lot of rumors out there about pain medication and COVID-19. Is it OK to take Tylenol or ibuprofen if you have COVID-19? Is one better than the other? 

You’re right about the rumors. In March, the French health minister, Olivier Véran, tweeted a warning for people not to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen. Later, the French health ministry published a bulletin suggesting that patients use Tylenol instead.

But Véran’s tweet was based on a small number of patients experiencing side effects. Since then, both the World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency have said there is no scientific evidence linking ibuprofen to making infected patients’ conditions worse. 

Hospitals and doctors are known to recommend Tylenol to people with infections because ibuprofen can cause side effects for people with asthma and lead to kidney damage if taken in high doses long term. Neither medication is fault-free; in high doses, Tylenol can cause liver damage.

How can I donate protective equipment supplies to health care workers, first responders and people in need?

First, try the BJC donation page. Anything donated there will be split evenly between participating health care systems. Choose from one of 12 drop-off locations. No open packages will be accepted.

And the St. Louis County Police are accepting donations. Email EOCdonatinos@stlouisco.com or call 633-891-5459.

Read more about donations in our story: Personal Protective Equipment Shortages Could Happen In St. Louis Region: Here’s How You Can Donate

Who can get tested? What is the criteria? 

Both Illinois and Missouri have recently broadened testing guidelines for COVID-19, giving clinicians more leeway to decide whether to test a patient. 

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services still encourages physicians to reserve tests only for people showing symptoms, which include a fever or cough. Most people will need to test negative for the flu before being given a test for the coronavirus. Testing capacity is still limited in Missouri and Illinois. 

Priorities for testing include:

  • Hospitalized patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Residents of retirement homes and other “congregate living facilities” that house individuals over 65 or people with chronic medical conditions. 
  • Any person who developed COVID-19 symptoms within 14 days of contact with someone who has either a confirmed or pending lab test.

Are we monitoring community spread?

Yes. Both the Missouri and Illinois health departments are following protocols to perform contact tracing after each new COVID-19 case found. Contact tracing alerts people who have been exposed to the infected person so they can self-quarantine and get treatment if needed.

What impact would the coronavirus have on a pregnant woman and developing fetus? 

Limited data is available about COVID-19 effects on pregnant women and their babies. Dr. Allan Fisher, an OB/GYN specializing in maternal and fetal care at St. Louis University, said most of the data is coming from about 78 mothers from China. Europe has yet to publish data. 

COVID-19 has not been shown to affect the fetus directly, nor has it caused birth defects. The Missouri Health Department said the virus was not found in amniotic fluid or breastmilk in those cases. 

While pregnant women tend to have weaker immune systems, expectant mothers are not necessarily more susceptible to COVID-19 than the rest of the population. Data show mothers with COVID-19 are at increased risk for preterm delivery, and some mimic symptoms of preeclampsia, such as higher blood pressure or abnormal liver function.

The best practice would be for pregnant women to be cautious and protect themselves by washing their hands often and avoiding people who are sick. The health department also recommended pregnant health care workers limit exposure to coronavirus patients. 

Are health care workers being tested? 

Health care workers are being advised to self-monitor for symptoms and frequently take their own temperature. The CDC’s guidelines for health care personnel recommend testing health care workers who exhibit mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.

Mercy, SSM and St. Luke’s hospitals are screening everyone who enters their buildings. Health care workers who do not pass the screening will be tested and quarantined. No area hospital spokespersons would provide a count of how many health care workers have been tested. 

Why aren't more tests being made available? 

In Missouri, and the rest of the country, there often haven’t been enough coronavirus tests to meet demand. The reasons are complicated. Part of the problem, at least initially, was with the test itself, which was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early versions showed inconclusive results, and that caused a bottleneck in getting the tests out to states. 

There are several commercial test kits available now, but you can’t go out and buy one. A doctor must order a test for you. Medicare Part B will cover the cost of coronavirus tests completed on or after Feb. 4, but it's unclear if people with private insurance will have to pay out of pocket for the tests.

What should I do to protect myself and loved ones?

Wash your hands. And stay home — especially if you feel sick.

You can protect yourself from catching the coronavirus the same way you would avoid the common cold, said Sharon Frey, an infectious diseases researcher at the St. Louis University Center for Vaccine Development. Both are spread through tiny droplets of water expelled when sick people cough or sneeze. 

“There’s nothing new; there are no new ideas or concepts here,” Frey said. “We all know the answer to this question, but we ask it anyway because we’re all worried.”

Washing your hands often is important, as is keeping your hands away from your face, she said. Unlike other viruses, the new coronavirus is fragile, which means it can be killed with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 

People should stay away from others if they are sick. Health officials also urge people to keep communal spaces clean and disinfected to protect yourself and others. Sneeze or cough into a disposable tissue or into your elbow. 

“There’s an amazing spray that you cannot see that comes out of the mouth when someone sneezes or coughs,” Frey said. “You have to do something to protect other people.”

How do we distinguish cold or flu symptoms from those of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has symptoms similar to the flu, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. For most people, these symptoms are mild. But they can be more severe in older or immunocompromised people and those with certain chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease.

Because the symptoms can be so similar, the only way to really tell the difference between the flu and the coronavirus is to be tested.

If you think you might have the coronavirus, the most important thing to do is to stay home and call your doctor or an urgent care center. They’ll ask you some screening questions, and then a doctor will decide whether you should be tested. 

 

Should I sanitize my food when I bring it home from the grocery store?

Early research shows the new coronavirus can survive on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours. 

After shopping, you should remove all food from cardboard boxes and other packaging, said Andrew Janowski, a St. Louis Children’s Hospital physician. Then, discard the packaging and wash your hands. 

“Once you’ve washed your hands, transfer your food to a clean plate or a clean container,” said Janowski, an infectious disease specialist. Consumers can also clean food packaging with antibacterial wipes or alcohol, Janowski said, but he warned that the stock of these items is limited. 

Janowski said people are unlikely to become sick from eating food contaminated with the coronavirus. In general, the virus spreads when a person touches a contaminated surface and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.

Should I wear rubber gloves if I go to crowded, busy places like the grocery store or school or a mall? 

Unless you’re sanitizing your gloves as often as you’d wash your hands, they’re not going to offer much protection. And, they might do more harm than good by giving a false sense of security. 

The main way the virus spreads is through tiny droplets that are sprayed into the air when an infected person coughs — or even talks. People also can get sick when they touch contaminated surfaces and then touch their faces, which is why doctors recommend washing your hands frequently.

Are any local universities working on tests to distribute? 

Barnes-Jewish Hospital, which is affiliated with Washington University's School of Medicine, has started conducting its own tests. Barnes-Jewish Hospital Clinical Laboratory is currently the only hospital-based lab in the state able to do diagnostic testing for the coronavirus. It developed a test that uses nasal swabs and could provide results in 24 hours. 

Wash U is also working to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.

What symptoms should I be experiencing before getting tested?

COVID-19 symptoms are similar to those of the cold or flu. Most patients experience mild symptoms, but in some people, especially older people or those with underlying illnesses, the symptoms—including cough, fever, nausea or shortness of breath—can be severe.

Doctors say people should seek medical attention if they have a high fever, a bloody cough or trouble breathing. Anyone with such symptoms, particularly someone who has traveled to countries where the virus is prevalent or who have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus, could qualify for a coronavirus test.

Where should someone go if they want to get tested?

If you think you might have the coronavirus, the most important thing is to minimize exposure to other people, said Dr. Melissa Tepe, chief medical officer at Affinia Healthcare.

Concerned patients should call an urgent care center, clinic or emergency room before arriving, Tepe said. Clinic workers will ask screening questions about a patient’s travel history and potential for exposure to positive cases. If the caller meets the CDC guidelines for a potential case, doctors can meet the patient as soon as they arrive to keep them away from other patients. They’ll also contact the city and state health departments to arrange for a test.

Patients who meet the testing criteria will have a swab sample taken from their nose or mouth. 

If you’re concerned that you’re infected but don’t meet the CDC standards for testing, don’t panic, Tepe said. There’s no COVID-19-specific medicine yet, and the treatment is the same as it would be for the flu or cold. That means rest, lots of fluids and taking ibuprofen for body aches. 

What do I do if I’m put under quarantine?

People under quarantine—even those who do not have symptoms—should stay home for 14 days from their last exposure to the virus or to someone who has it. 

“People shouldn’t be answering the door and addressing people who come to the door face to face if they come under quarantine; they should speak through the door,” said Demetrius Cianci-Chapman, director of public health for St. Charles County. “They shouldn’t be picking up prescriptions; they shouldn’t be going for drives; they shouldn’t be walking around the community; they shouldn’t be talking over the fence with their neighbor.”

Read more: You’ve Been Put Under Quarantine — Here's What You Should Do

Does salt water kill the coronavirus?

No. 

How does this coronavirus affect dogs? Is it transmittable from humans to dogs and back?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence that companion animals or pets can spread the coronavirus or that they might be a source of infection in the U.S. There have been no reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19.

Is it safe to go for a walk, or do we need to stay in the house all the time? Can I still ride my bike or walk my dog?

Yes, it is safe to take a walk or engage in an outdoor activity you enjoy. A self-quarantine does not have to mean a complete shutdown of your life. Taking care of yourself by stretching, exercising or spending time outdoors can keep you healthy mentally as well as physically. Just be sure to follow other recommended prevention practices, such as avoiding large groups, and, of course, washing your hands when you come back inside. 

Read the CDC guidelines for managing stress and anxiety during coronavirus.

Should I cancel my upcoming trips? 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. But there are questions to ask yourself.

Is the event I’m traveling for still happening? Response to the virus has led to the cancelation of many scheduled events, including athletic events and live music. Check your itinerary for canceled events.

Can I follow prevention guidelines while traveling? If you are leaving home for a long period of time, make sure you’re still able to wash your hands regularly, avoid large crowds and isolate yourself if you feel any symptoms while on the road. 

I need mental health resources. Who can I call?

The federal Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 is a free mental health resource that anyone can use. It is staffed by mental health professionals who can talk with you and, if you need more help than they can provide, connect you with services in Missouri and Illinois. Specifically, they can connect you with professionals linked to state-certified mental health and substance use disorder services. The system is free and completely confidential.

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