COVID-19 FAQ: What we know (and still don’t) about the virus

Dr. Allison Suttle explains where science is on COVID-19 immunity, spread & more

Dr. Allison Suttle speaks in an office while gesturing with her hand.

Midsummer marks the halfway point of 2020 and nearly five months into the coronavirus pandemic for much of the United States.

While researchers learn more about the virus every day, Allison Suttle, M.D., chief medical officer of Sanford Health, weighs in on a few of the big things we do and still don’t know about COVID-19.

We KNOW: The biology of the virus

Medical leaders do know quite a bit about the biology of the virus and where it came from.

“This is a coronavirus, an RNA (ribonucleic acid) virus that came from China and that has spread and become a pandemic throughout the country,” Dr. Suttle tells Sanford Health News. “It is a respiratory virus that is transmitted through those droplets and that the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to wear a mask and stay away from close confines and close contact with individuals for a long period of time.”

We KNOW: Risks among pregnant women

“Typically, the immune system of a pregnant woman is muted and that can make them more at risk to multiple viruses like other respiratory viruses,” Dr. Suttle said. “They are more likely to become infected with COVID-19. So, it’s definitely a time to take special precautions. Talk to your OB/GYN or your family doctor about what you need to do at the different stages of pregnancy to keep yourself safe.”

We KNOW: Social behavior and transmission

“The biggest thing that causes transmission of the virus is the behavior of individuals,” Dr. Suttle said.

“If we were to have every single individual stand still for 14 days, six feet apart from everybody, the virus would stop. It would die. It couldn’t go to another person. That’s impossible. What we need to do is create barriers between ourselves and the virus and barriers between others and the virus.”

Dr. Suttle encourages people to be conscientious about where we need to go and what we need to do, wear a mask and continue washing your hands often.

While the virus doesn’t last long on surfaces, we know that’s how germs are transmitted.

“There are other viruses that by washing our hands, we have prevention,” Dr. Suttle said.

We KNOW: The spread before symptoms

“I could have the virus not have symptoms and potentially get somebody else sick,” Dr. Suttle explains. “So, I need to wear a mask and that’s going to help me from getting other people sick.

“This concept of movement and people’s behavior causing increases is very real. That is about the only thing that we can really do to help control the virus until there is a vaccine. Even with a vaccine, we’re still going to need to be careful. That’s true of any virus, not just this virus.”

We DON’T know: Are we immune after testing positive?

Medical leaders are working to study immunity of this virus and whether we would ever get it again.

“We know other coronaviruses, for example, the first SARS coronavirus provided protection for about two to three years. Our bodies would remember it for a little while, but not forever. It’s reasonable to think that there might be some amount of immunity for awhile. But when we don’t know, and when this virus can spread so easily, we’re better off assuming that there is not long-term immunity and really continuing to be careful and vigilant because so many others around us are vulnerable.”

With immunity, she says, if your body remembers that virus and you get exposed again, you may become less ill.

“Your body may develop some sort of response but your symptoms may be significantly less than the first time around. However, you’re still infected with the virus which means you can still infect others. That’s really the concern is since we don’t know, even though it’s likely to be immune for some time, really you’re better off staying safe and that’s more for those around you.”

We DON’T know: How long is someone infectious?

We don’t know how long someone is infectious and able to infect someone else.

“We’re learning about that every day and refining that,” Dr. Suttle said. “We think there’s the ability to be infectious early on before you even have symptoms.”

“So, you’ve been exposed and the virus is in your system, but you don’t know it yet. You don’t have the cough, you don’t have the fever, no body aches … but you’re breathing and talking close to other people. You could spread the virus to somebody else. We are able to test someone who has the virus repeatedly so we can test them over time and see when the virus is no longer present, but it doesn’t mean that we’re seeing infectious virus present. So we need to be careful about doing that serial testing.”

We DON’T know: What will be an effective treatment?

According to medical leaders, this is still a gray zone and Dr. Suttle says we learn more every day.

At the beginning, experts began to try a number of different things to safely study what would work and what wouldn’t.

“It was exactly what we wanted our physicians to do,” Dr. Suttle said. “Then, we kind of backed off and said, ‘You know what? This is a virus.’ This is just like other viral significant respiratory illnesses. So let’s go back to the basics.

“At the same time, we had scientists studying how the virus got into the cells, how it replicated, what it did, the basic biology of this virus. With that basic biology, we could say, ‘this medication works at this cellular level’ or ‘this medication works at this cellular level.’ Then we developed protocols to use those different medications at different points in time in the virus.

“Those are ongoing trials right now and we’re starting to collect data. That data includes good randomized controlled trials, patients that received the medications, patients that didn’t receive the medications that will get us closer to an understanding of what is an actual treatment for COVID.

“We’re in the process of gathering that data and we hope to have answers in the near future.”

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Posted In Coronavirus, Expert Q&A, Frequently Asked Questions

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