The science on COVID-19 is moving faster than it has for any previous outbreak: The scientific community went from discovering the virus to starting a vaccine trial in just three months. But despite that speed, we still don’t know everything we’d like to know about it. And no matter how diligently scientists study a virus in a lab, we cannot possibly predict everything that will happen as it spreads worldwide. There’s never been a virus quite like this, and there’s only one way to learn what a new pandemic is like.
But we all want to know more. We want to know how fatal it really is, where it really came from, how much social distancing we really need to do, and how likely it is to infect us or someone we love.
This means there’s a huge gap between what we want to know, and what is actually known. And that gap is getting filled by a variety of stuff. There are small bits of genuine news and preliminary scientific discoveries, but they are mere droplets in the empty bucket of our curiosity. The rest of what fills that void is stuff of more uncertain usefulness: opinions, speculation, mathematical modelling. The gut feelings of medical professionals, the doubts and hopes of politicians. Conspiracy theories. And, very possibly, some brilliant observations that we don’t yet recognise as such.
It’s becoming clear that sorting information from misinformation is trickier than ever in the time of COVID-19, but also more important than ever. At Lifehacker, we generally avoid covering information that’s preliminary or that appears to be false or unreliable—unless it’s extremely popular, and then we’ll jump in to debunk. But with all the uncertainty swirling around, we’re going to take a different approach for now.
So that’s why we’re starting a series of Monday open threads where you can share what you’ve come across lately. We can discuss a bit here—I’ll give you my own gut feelings, if you like—and then the Lifehacker team will use this discussion to inform our coverage as the week goes on.
To get you started, here are a few things I’ve come across lately:
A few weeks ago, there was a warning that ibuprofen might be unsafe for treating fevers in patients with COVID-19. But that warning turned out not to be based in clinical evidence, and was not embraced by any major organisations as an official recommendation. Didn’t stop a ton of people from sending it to me, though. I made the call not to cover this on Lifehacker, but I felt truly on the fence about it at the time: the evidence wasn’t there, but should we discuss the extent to which it was unsupported, and the reasons why it seemed plausible? I hope people didn’t crowd into pharmacies to buy Tylenol when the meds they had at home were (as far as we know) totally fine.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether the public advice not to wear masks was a mistake. One recent Washington Post opinion piece argues that we should all make ourselves masks out of old T-shirts. I’m actually working on a post right now about the pros and cons of fabric masks, but I think this is a nuanced topic. Medical masks are in short supply, and need to be saved for healthcare workers and people with medical needs. Fabric masks are not considered PPE (personal protective equipment) for hospital staff. And there’s conflicting science on whether fabric masks are useful in real life. (Lots of lab tests, very few studies of real-life populations.) I’m not planning to wear a mask, personally, but I understand why the subject is up for discussion.
Hospital parking lots and waiting rooms are, in some places, empty. Apparently there’s a movement (on one side of the political spectrum, apparently) asking people to document the emptiness to show that the whole idea of an overwhelmed health system is a hoax. But these visible areas of hospitals are empty for a much more realistic and obvious reason: non-emergency procedures are being cancelled as the U.S. CDC asks healthcare facilities to keep patients away unless absolutely necessary. Many hospitals have eliminated or reduced visiting policies as well. This is partly a social distancing measure, and partly a way to compensate for the surge in healthcare demand that is already happening in some places and expected imminently in others.
Those are just three of the many stories that are floating around that stand out to me as worth discussing, but ultimately more complicated than a quick “we should” or “we shouldn’t” recommendation.
So now we’d like to hear from you. What have you heard about the coronavirus (or any related issues) that makes you wonder? What are you excited about, scared about, eager to share, or wearily seeing on repeat? If something you’ve read has made you think “hmm, maybe I should do something different in my life now that I know this,” we’d like to hear about it.