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From misinformation to masks, 4 basic coronavirus questions answered

Novel coronavirus has infected more than 3.5 million people and killed more than 250,000 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. As countries around the world, including the United States, grapple with how to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, what are scientists learning about the virus? What is the state of testing, and what should people know as states begin to reopen businesses?

Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine and senior medical adviser to Physicians for Human Rights, joined PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham on Friday to answer your questions on COVID-19.

Watch the conversation in the liveplayer above.

Should you wear a face mask?

Wearing a face mask “is the socially responsible thing to do,” Mishori said. Initially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the public against wearing face masks as protection against the virus. Then, based on new studies about apparent asymptomatic transmission of the virus, the Trump administration updated its guidance about wearing face masks, recommending that people do so while also maintaining a safe social distance of at least 6 feet from others when outside their homes. Mishori said the research into COVID-19 and our understanding of how the virus behaves is still evolving.

When will it be safe for the country to reopen?

Four conditions must be met before the United States can reopen safely, Mishori said.

  • New cases of COVID-19 must decline for two weeks.
  • A testing campaign must be adequate enough to effectively gauge the number of symptomatic people nationwide.
  • When testing and screening identifies a person who has been infected with the virus, their contacts must be traced to figure out if more people might be sick with COVID-19 and need to self-isolate to control the virus.
  • Health care facilities must have the capacity to accept more patients.

“Unfortunately, these four conditions are not being met in most states, as far as I’m aware,” Mishori said. Roughly 250,000 tests for COVID-19 are administered daily in the U.S, she said, and that remains wholly inadequate to help public health officials figure out how to mitigate the disease.

READ MORE: How contact tracing can help the U.S. get control over coronavirus

How can testing and contact tracing help us control COVID-19?

Testing not only lets you know if you are sick, but it also alerts your community’s public health system that they might expect more cases of COVID-19 in their area and to plan appropriately. But the U.S. has hit several stumbling blocks with too few tests, an inadequate number of testing supplies and issues tied to the accuracy of some test results. Once someone is tested, public health workers need to contact those with whom the person who is confirmed to have the virus has interacted.

“Only with massive testing and massive contact tracing will we be able to safely say, ‘O.K., we have enough information,’” and then safely reopen businesses, restaurants and schools, Mishori said.

READ MORE: Why uncertainty about coronavirus breeds opportunity for misinformation

How can people stop the spread of misinformation about COVID-19?

Misinformation has proliferated with the spread of COVID-19, producing what the World Health Organization has called an “infodemic.” When you hear information about the virus, Mishori urged people to seek out the original source. She suggested people refer to the WHO, which offers resources to debunk myths on its website, as well as the CDC, which offers information that’s “very digestible.”

To combat information that can be dangerous, Mishori encouraged people to ask for the evidence behind a claim and speak out.

“If you hear something that doesn’t sound right, ask for the information, ask for the evidence,” Mishori said. “If you realize that it’s not there and that it’s wrong, please, you, yourself can be a source of positive, accurate and evidence-based information.”

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