What if many of the actions we have been taking to avoid contracting COVID-19 have been misinformed and some real risks ignored?
Before this story goes any further, however, a warning is in order that what follows should be taken with a chloroquine-based grain of skepticism that just because something looks like it prevents (or causes) disease doesn’t mean that it does.
And with a full understanding that correlation is not causation. Just because your dog barks every time you scratch your butt doesn’t mean butt scratching causes dogs to bark.
That said, here were the study’s unexpected findings:
- Regularly walking a dog increases the risk of contagion of COVID-19 by 78 percent.
- The most effective hygiene measure for preventing infection is disinfecting purchased products.
- Ordering basic products for home delivery raises – instead of lowers – the risk of infection.
The studies two other, major conclusions could be considered obvious as they are in line with previous studies:
- Living with a COVID-19 patient increases the risk of infection by 60 times.
- Working in a workplace with other people increases the risk by 76 percent.
The home and workplace connections are logical. It only makes sense that the more time you spend in an environment where more COVID-19 causing SARS-CoV-2 viruses are likely in the air, the more likely it is you will contract the disease.
The other findings are harder to fathom. The authors from the Biomedical Research Centre at the University of Granada and the Andalusian School of Public Health said they undertook their examination of “sociodemographic characteristics, hygiene habits, activity and mobility, and comorbidities of SARS-CoV-2 infection to be able to implement prevention strategies.”
Spain imposed some of the most restrictive standards in Europe to try to slow the spread of the pandemic virus. The country in March 2020 ordered the closure of bars, restaurants, bars, hotels, schools and other non-essential businesses; and told people they were to stay in their homes unless they needed to journey to an essential job, pick up food or medicine, or visit medical centers or banks.
The lockdown was vigorously enforced. People were kept largely locked in their homes for seven weeks, and Spanish media reported 7,189 people arrested and 806,595 fined between March 15 and May 3 when lockdown restrictions were finally eased.
About two weeks later, the country ordered its citizens to wear masks indoors and out when they left their homes.
The effectiveness of those measures is hard to assess. As of today, the Worldometers coronavirus tracker puts the death rate in Spain at 138 per 100,000. That compares to a death rate of 123 per 100,000 in Sweden, which has been widely criticized for not cracking down hard enough on its citizens to prevent the spread of the virus.
Both countries are doing better than the U.S. with a national death rate of 150 per 100,000, and a number of states – New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Massachusetts, Mississipi, Connecticut, Rhode Island and South Dakota – over 200 per 100,000.
New Jersey is the hardest-hit state in the nation with a death rate of 253 per 100,000. Alaskans have been dying at a rate of only 38 per 100,000, making Alaska one of the safest states in the nation for those trying to avoid infection. Only Vermont and Hawaii at 30 per 100,000 are doing better.
Vermont is, like Alaska, little populated. Only Wyoming has a population smaller than the Green Mountain State. Early in the pandemic, Hawaii imposed strict limitations on travel to try to keep the pandemic virus out of the islands.
The 50th state has been largely successful in controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but tourism, which powers about a quarter of the Hawaiian economy, has taken a beating. The Associated Press has reported almost one in 10 Hawaiians are now out of work, and many of those who still have jobs are working only part-time.
Worldwide, the virus is still threatening to power a global economic disaster.
Search for solutions
“In view of the rapid spread of the virus, it is necessary to study the sociodemographic characteristics, hygiene habits, activity and mobility, and comorbidities of SARS-CoV-2 infection to be able to implement prevention strategies,” the authors of the Spanish study wrote. “For this purpose, a survey including the variables of interest was designed to try to understand the exponential spread of the virus despite the implemented severe restrictive mobility measures during the period of maximum confinement in Spain.”
What it found was that many of the popular variables scored poorly.
“The most effective hygiene measure reducing the prevalence of the disease was the disinfection of products purchased from the market upon arrival home, which reduced the risk by 94 percent, above other hygiene measures, such as wearing masks, gloves, ethanol disinfection, bleaching and others,” the study said.
In the U.S., where masks have now been federally mandated, disinfecting groceries has been largely dismissed as a waste of time.
“Stop wiping down groceries and focus on bigger risks,” the Washington Post headlined in October, citing health experts.
“Although studies continue to show that the novel coronavirus can be detected on contaminated objects after days or weeks, a consensus has emerged among scientists that the virus is rarely transmitted through contact with tainted surfaces and that it’s safe to stop taking such extreme measures as quarantining your mail and wiping down your groceries,” the story below the headline reported.
“…The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)…has updated its ‘How Covid-19 Spreads’ web page to say that ‘spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way’ the virus is transmitted.”
The Spanish study, if nothing else, raises questions about that conclusion. It also found “a significant(ly) higher prevalence of the disease” among Spaniards who turned to “acquiring basic commodities using home delivery service compared to those who chose in-store shopping,” which would again indicate a link to SARS-CoV-2 on those commodities.
But the SARS-CoV-2 soundbite in the study was clearly the dogs.
The study’s authors admitted they could only theorize on a possible, causal relationship between walking the dog and catching COVID-19; the dogs could be infected carriers off the SARS-CoV-2, or their furry bodies could be magnets for pathogens encountered while out walking with their owners.
“At the international level, there are several studies that have obtained results similar to ours regarding coronavirus infection in dogs, but it is necessary to dig deeper on this issue and establish whether this prevalence of the virus among dog-owners is due to one reason or another,” lead researcher Cristina Sánchez González from the University of Granada told SciTechDaily.
“In the midst of a pandemic and in the absence of an effective treatment or vaccine, preventive hygiene measures are the only salvation, and these measures should also be applied to dogs, which, according to our study, appear to directly or indirectly increase the risk of contracting the virus.”
Cats did not increase the risk of infection, which might have something to do with the fact that cats in many urban areas largely spend their lives in the house.
The Spanish study looked at a broad range of circumstances and behaviors that might increase exposure to SARS-CoV-2 or increase the odds of infection with the virus developing into COVID-19. On the list were “sociodemographic characteristics (sex, age, educational level), home characteristics (type of residence, cohabiting people, housemaids working at home), pets (kind of pet and walking habits), work activity (working on-site during the confinement, work space), protection (use of mask, gloves, hydroalcoholic gel, disinfectant products, laundry), mobility (using public transportation, visit to supermarket, pharmacy, tobacco shop, bank, medical care center, home delivery), other diseases or health conditions (smoker, previous diseases, overweight or obesity, pharmacological treatment, physical activity).”
At the time the study was conducted, about half of those involved (47.3 percent) reported wearing masks when leaving their homes and more than 65 percent wore gloves. The vast majority – more than 95 percent – avoided mass transit.
More than three-quarters were washing their floors with bleach to kill viruses. More than two-thirds were cleaning door knobs and home surfaces with disinfectants, and disinfecting or isolating shoes or boots after their rare trips outside the home. These were among the many safety measures recommended by Spanish authorities.
The study found no statistical significance to “masks, gloves, disinfecting with ethanol or bleach, disinfecting shoes and washing clothes when returning home.”
Proper tool usage
“In the case of masks,” the authors added, “the results of this study slightly suggest the opposite effect to that of protection, possibly due to misuse of masks by the general population untrained in their use.”
They joined those cautioning that “social distancing is the most important measure that the public can take to combat the virus, a measure that tends to be minimized due to the false sense of security that masks and gloves confer.”
A study of masks conducted by researchers at the University of Vermont earlier this month warned that the public messaging on masks has been bad.
“We found that the key factors associated with a higher probability of testing positive for COVID-19 were the number of contacts with adults and older adults, particularly contacts with people who have COVID-19,” those researchers wrote ina peer-reviewed paper published at JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.
Unfortunately, they added, when people put on masks and believe everyone is protected the numbers of contacts go up.
“It is plausible that mandating masks could be counterproductive if the increased risk associated with an increase in contacts is larger than the decrease in risk associated with mask wearing,” they warned. “That is, it is possible masks may provide a false sense of security that leads to people letting their guard down and trusting the mask more than is warranted. Further research into the effectiveness of masks and behavioral responses to mask mandates is urgently needed.”
”Messaging that people need to wear a mask is essential, but insufficient,” Eline van den Broek-Altenburg, the vice-chair for Population Health Science in the Department of Radiology at the Larner College of Medicine and the principal investigator on the Vermont study told Healthing, a Canadian website.
The rest of the message needs to be that people need to keep their distance, she said. The latter message would apply equally to dogs.
In order to become carriers for the SARS-CoV-2 virus – no matter how they carry it – dogs need to be exposed to the virus. Dog owners might want to give some thought to how to minimize exposure.
Public spaces crowded with people increase risks. So, too, strangers or even friends petting your dog. Dog parks, where your dog interacts with a lot of other dogs, might not be a good idea at this time. And if the Spaniards are right about home-delivered groceries being a risk, you might not want the dog playing in those either.