As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to grow, so, too, does the amount of confusion around the disease itself and the protocols consumers should take.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) announced plans to shorten the recommended length for quarantine following exposure to the virus from 14 days to 10 days. Across the country, providers are seeing an uptick in calls from workers: “My employer says I need to be tested for COVID-19. What do I do?” And with some schools across the country offering in-person education, parents of children who develop colds face an agonizing choice: Test their child for COVID-19 or quarantine at home. The virus has even stumped healthcare professionals, with new research from the CDC pointing to disturbing trends in complications from the virus as well as the populations most significantly affected by the virus. With new information and protocols being released on nearly a daily basis, it can be difficult for even the most seasoned healthcare workers to stay up to date.

How can consumers break past common misconceptions to protect themselves and their families from the coronavirus? Here are five “MythBusters” to keep in mind based on emerging evidence.

MythBuster No. 1: No single symptom is indicative of COVID-19. Healthcare professionals continue to discover symptoms that are signs of COVID-19, such as chest pain, conjunctivitis, and rashes with bleeding under the skin. That’s why it’s so important for physicians take into account the constellation of symptoms that patients present with as well as their risk of exposure and the timing of symptoms in determining whether an individual should be tested for COVID-19.

MythBuster No. 2: Lack of fever does not rule out the presence of COVID-19. While it’s unusual for someone over the age of 45 to test positive for the coronavirus without a fever, we are seeing instances of infection in individuals who never develop one. In fact, an April 2020 study found that nearly 45% of those diagnosed with COVID-19 did not report fever as a symptom. Another study, conducted in July 2020, showed that 51% of those receiving emergency medical services for confirmed COVID-19 did not present with a fever. These data are crucial because they help discredit the myth that people must have a fever to have COVID-19. So often, we see patients who wait to be tested or treated because they hold to the belief that without a fever, they aren’t sick with the coronavirus. This keeps them from getting vital care until the infection is at an advanced stage.

MythBuster No. 3: A negative test doesn’t put you in the clear—especially if you test too early. A Johns Hopkins study found that individuals who were tested four days after exposure to COVID-19 were 67% more likely to test negative, even if they had contracted the virus. False negatives among those who show symptoms of infection were much lower, but still totaled 38%. Meanwhile, one in five individuals who undergo testing eight days after being exposed to the coronavirus will receive a false negative result. That’s one reason why it’s so important for healthcare providers to discuss the potential for false negative results with patients, urge them to limit time spent with people outside their household until 10 days after exposure, and alert them to the need to seek care if symptoms appear. Instructions such as these are a key part of eliminating the confusion that consumers face going into testing and afterward—and keeping their loved ones, coworkers and the public safe.

MythBuster No. 4: An antibody test isn’t as helpful as some might think. When antibody tests came out, they were the “new kid on the block.” Suddenly, everyone who was sick with the flu back in January and February wondered: “Could that have been COVID-19?” But an antibody test doesn’t give you information that should change your behavior. That’s because antibodies are most often detected one to three weeks after symptom onset—a time when individuals may be entering the end of quarantine or have already been released from isolation. An antibody test doesn’t tell you whether you are actively infected. It’s also important to remember that even if you test positive for antibodies, that doesn’t mean you are immune to the coronavirus. There’s still much to understand about various strains of the virus and whether people can get COVID-19 more than once. While originally it was thought to be unlikely, one pro bicyclist has shown that it’s possible to be infected again. 

MythBuster No. 5: In most instances, the emergency department (ED) shouldn’t be your first stop. Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe—and often, patients can be triaged virtually, rather than risking exposure to COVID-19 in an ED setting. During a telehealth appointment, for example, a physician can assess your risk of exposure, evaluate the symptoms that pose cause for concern, determine whether testing or in-person care is needed. When further evaluation or testing is called for, the telehealth provider also can make arrangements for the appropriate next steps. This approach reduces time spent in waiting areas and helps eliminate unnecessary care and costs. Patients who should go to the ED immediately are those who exhibit the following symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent chest pain
  • Confusion that was not present before symptoms appeared
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • A bluish tinge to the lips or face

Making the Right Moves for Health

COVID-19 cases are spreading aggressively across the United States, and there are no perfect indicators to predict who may become very ill after exposure to the virus and who won’t. It’s important that consumers know how to reduce their risk of exposure, when to quarantine and when to seek testing and treatment. But with so much misinformation circulating, even the definition of exposure can seem murky unless it comes from a reliable source..

Separating COVID-19 myths from facts is key to protecting personal and public health. Take the time to seek out reputable sources of information on the virus. The CDC is an excellent starting point. So are conversations with a physician or nurse practitioner, especially when symptoms appear that give you pause. Resist the urge to tell yourself, “It’s not really COVID-19.” We see this a lot with patients experiencing headache, scratchy throat or a runny nose who tell themselves they have a cold or a sinus infection and then seek care to confirm this self-diagnosis. On the flip side, don’t drive yourself into a panic every time you sneeze; seek help from a medical clinician who can help you determine what’s causing your symptoms. The right care in the right setting will help you navigate the pandemic while helping to keep you and your loved ones safe.