Ask the Experts

What do you want to know about the coronavirus?

10 mins read


Illustration by Sofia Bahamon

We’ve lined up teams of experts who’ll provide factual, objective answers to questions you want — and need — to know. Here’s Neel B. Shah, MD, a physician at University of Pittsburgh Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, on COVID-19 and living with a pandemic.

What is a twindemic, and is there going to be one this winter?
A ‘twindemic’ is a situation in which two infectious disease outbreaks are occurring at the same time. In our current situation, experts are worried about a twindemic occurring this winter from both the Influenza virus (which causes seasonal influenza), and the novel Coronavirus SARS-COV-2 (which has resulted in the current pandemic that has been present in the U.S since the beginning of this year).

Unfortunately, both viral infections will be present this winter. However, the severity of this twindemic will depend heavily on how aggressively we prepare for both of these infections in advance. This will involve ensuring that as many people as possible are practicing social distancing, washing their hands correctly, and  wearing masks properly in order to curb the spread of both viruses. It will also involve getting as many individuals as possible to take the influenza vaccine in a timely manner this year, as well as the Coronavirus vaccine, if this becomes available and is confirmed to be reliable and safe before this upcoming winter season.
When all of these things are done correctly and in a coordinated manner, they prove to be very effective in reducing the risk of transmission of both viruses, and should help to reduce the severity of this anticipated twindemic.

How risky is it to live in an apartment building? I am considering moving back to an apartment off campus in the spring, and worry that ventilation will get me infected, even if I try to isolate. 
So far, there is no epidemiological evidence to suggest that HVAC systems in residential buildings are spreading COVID-19 from one apartment residence to another. In fact, the air handling systems can help filter out virus particles and reduce the risk of catching the virus. These conclusions have been based on analyzing a number of prior COVID-19 outbreaks that occurred, including the Diamond Princess ship outbreak, and a high-rise tower outbreak that occurred in Hong Kong.

However, if there is someone within your apartment that is infected with SARS-COV-2, then the ventilation system can help to promote spreading of the virus by blowing droplet particles towards the direction of other people within the apartment. This was felt to be the cause of an outbreak that occurred in a restaurant in Guangzhou. China.

In short, living in an apartment complex does not appear to significantly increase your risk of getting SARS-COV-2 (I live in an apartment myself). However, if someone within your apartment is infected with this virus, there are more challenges in keeping others from being infected in that apartment, as they tend to be smaller than houses, condos, and town homes., Also, the ventilation system could in theory help spread the virus within the apartment more easily given it is smaller.

What types of masks or face covering works the best? 
Face masks that have at least  two layers of fabric, usually with thick, densely woven cotton, are considered best for the general public. Paper masks that have at least two layers of covering are also acceptable for reducing the risk of spreading the virus. Just as important as selecting the type of mask is wearing them properly—masks should cover both the nose and mouth and be secured under the chin. If worn improperly, the quality of the mask will do little to prevent the spread of SARS-COV-2.

Face shields, which usually contain a rigid piece of plastic that is attached to a headband and wraps around the person’s face, can also help to reduce the transmission of the virus. However droplets containing the virus can still be inhaled through the open areas around the plastic visor. Given this, they are not considered to be as effective as masks and are not recommended on their own by the CDC. However, some experts feel that when combined with masks, face shields can provide additional protection in reducing the risk of transmission. 

How will the pandemic affect college admissions?
I suspect that until this pandemic is under control, most colleges will have their admissions process done virtually, through the use of apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Interviews will likely be done virtually, rather than face to face, for the foreseeable future. This also could mean that students will have less of an opportunity to explore the inside of campuses or check out dorms that they might want to live in. However, many college campuses are creating virtual videos to help prospective candidates explore their college and dorms, in order to help students get a sense of what the college experience will be like at each institution.

Does being in an elevator over a stairwell affect my odds of getting covid?
Being in an elevator with a number of people makes it difficult to properly distance from others given the limited space that is available. Due to this, there is a potentially higher risk for transmission of SARS-COV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) within an elevator than on an open stairwell. Since this pandemic began, however, many buildings with elevators now have recommendations as to the maximum number of people that can be in any single elevator at one time.his, combined with the use of masks and proper hand washing, can help to reduce the risk of spread.

I have two sides of my family. How can I safely be in more than one pod?
As of now, maintaining proper hand washing, social distancing, and mask wearing practices when out in public for all members in both pods would be the best way for anyone in either pod to limit their risk of acquiring COVID-19. Making sure that everyone in both pods are up to date on their vaccinations, especially the flu vaccine, would also be another step in preventing any viral infections from being spread between the two pods.

What is the difference between social distancing 6ft outside or 6ft inside?
Whether indoors or outdoors, wearing a mask, washing your hands when touching surfaces or other people, and maintaining at least six  feet of distancing between any two people would be the best ways of limiting the spread of the virus. Social distancing can be tougher to do indoors at times, given the limited space that might be present depending on where you are. In these situations, wearing masks and washing your hands properly can still help to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

People keep telling me kids my age can’t catch covid. I want to hear it from a doctor.
I’m not sure what age you are, but kids of all ages can most certainly catch the new Coronavirus (SARS-COV-2), and seem to be able to spread the virus to others just as well as adults, regardless of whether they develop symptoms or not. Kids can also develop serious complications from the virus, but this thankfully seems to be less common than with adults as of now. However, kids can spread the virus to older adults, who could then become very ill because of the virus. Therefore, everyone should be taking precautions to minimize the spread of the virus, which includes proper hand washing, wearing a face mask, and social distancing.

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