COVID-19 Q&A with infectious diseases specialist Brandon Webb, MD

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Utah and throughout the U.S., Brandon Webb, MD, an infectious diseases specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, shares an update about the current state of the pandemic.

What is the current state of COVID-19, and is there any good news?

We’re watching the numbers and clearly and we’re still seeing a rise in cases. There’s some favorable news in some of the areas that were hit hardest and earliest. We’re seeing some signs of flattening or peaking and that’s encouraging. There’s been a tremendous effort to expand testing availability and we’re reassured by the number of tests that are being conducted. There’s also been a lot of effort invested in developing and studying new treatments, which is encouraging as well. Lastly, I think we’ve been pleased to see communities embrace social distancing, and while we could definitely do better, we’re grateful people are coming together in that way.

We're testing more people. What are you seeing as a result of increased testing?

Right now in Utah, we’re testing thousands of people a day. Our labs are testing at the top of their capacity and we’re pleased about that. Of all the tests that are being done, 5% come back positive and of those 5%, only 8% are severe enough to require care inside the hospital. More than 90% of our positive cases right now have symptoms that are treatable outside the hospital.

What should you do if you think you might have COVID-19 and you can't get tested?

Our hope is that as we continue to expand the availability of testing, everyone who has risk factors for severe disease should be able to be tested. The testing criteria have continued to expand as our testing capacity has expanded. Not only are we testing those who have traveled to hotspots in the U.S., but we’re testing those who are at risk for severe disease because of age, chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, healthcare workers, and people with weakened immune systems. We’re not able to expand testing more broadly to people in the community who don’t fit all those categories, but whose symptoms do match the COVID-19 syndrome.

Is sore throat a symptom of COVID-19?

COVID-19 is what I call a “chameleon.” In other words, it’s a virus that can cause a number of different symptoms. Most commonly it causes fever, body aches, dry cough, and shortness of breath. In about 15% of patients, it can also cause sore throat. About 15% of patients can also have gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea. We’re learning more and more about the symptoms of COVID-19. One interesting fact that’s been in the news a lot is that it seems there are a fraction of patients who lose their sense of smell as part of the infection.

Are there medications now that can treat COVID-19?

There's been a lot in the news about medications that may help with COVID-19. A number of medications hold promise but remain unproven. The most important way to identify whether these drugs actually work is in the context of clinical trials. There's been a tremendous effort both in our state and nationwide to set up clinical trials that not only provide access to these medications, but also do it in a way that ensures monitoring and safety.

How do you treat COVID-19?

Patients who have severe COVID-19 and require hospitalization receive state-of-the-art support for lung function. If you don't require treatment in the hospital, the best treatment is the basics your mom always told you about — rest, hydration, and of course, isolation to make sure no one else in your household becomes infected. Those are the things that actually allow your immune system to do the heavy lifting and fight off COVID-19. Most people are able to fight it off on their own.

Why is social-distancing important?

Social distancing remains our single greatest tool for flattening the curve. Whether you live in Summit County, Salt Lake County, or anywhere else in the state, social distancing is our most important tool as a community to pull together and fight the virus.

Are outdoor activities considered safe?

Being outdoors is healthy and getting exercise is healthy. Just remember, social distancing means staying six feet away from other people. And if you can do that while you're outdoors, being outside is good.

Do I need to wipe down my groceries when I bring them home?

The safest answer to that is, if you can wipe down the hard surfaces on groceries, it's a wise thing to do. More porous surfaces like paper bags, other textiles, and other soft materials are less amenable for the virus to live on.

Why is this more serious than the flu?

The virus behaves differently than the flu. The SARS COVID-2 virus that causes COVID-19 attacks the lungs in a different way than flu does and it actually behaves in some groups more favorably than the flu. The flu can be really severe in infants and children but COVID-19 is much more severe in the elderly.

Does vitamin C help fight COVID-19?

In New York City, they’re using vitamin C and it remains to be seen whether it’s successful or not. For 50 years there’s been a lot of interest in the way vitamin C supplements support the immune system. We know a lot about vitamin C and it does probably have some mild antiviral properties. Whether it makes a big impact in severe cases remains to be seen.

Are pregnant women more at risk?

We have no data right now that suggests pregnancy is a risk factor for either acquiring the disease or for having a more severe case of the disease. Care for mom and baby is a top priority and because of that, pregnant women are high priority for testing, but not necessarily because you're more likely to get it or to have severe disease if you're pregnant.

Is wearing a mask in public recommended?

No, it's actually not recommended. The reason is that masks serve as a deterrent to touching your face, but they don't necessarily block your ability to inhale virus particles if you were close to someone who coughed. If you’re sick and have symptoms of COVID-19, you should wear a mask to help protect other people.