As chief health officer at Blue Shield of California, one of my goals is to help people make sense of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic and the daily headlines we're seeing. Here are some of the most important things you should know:
There is no curative treatment for the virus. Most people can treat symptoms at home with help from their care teams. People who are hospitalized receive what we call “supportive care" (fluids, oxygen and medications to support vital organ systems). Some patients may receive new or experimental treatments, including drugs such as hydroxychloroquine. The results of these treatments are extremely preliminary. Their effectiveness must be evaluated in scientifically and ethically rigorous studies, many of which will take several months or longer to design and complete.
The promise of antibodies
A small study of five patients published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that antibodies obtained from people who had recovered from coronavirus (known as “convalescent" serum) and administered by transfusion to people with serious infection could be an effective treatment. This approach has shown promising results with other infections. To study this further, the Food and Drug Administration has asked the American Red Cross to recruit individuals to donate plasma if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and have fully recovered. You can learn more here.
Developing a vaccine
A robust research effort is underway to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. The first candidates entered phase one trials in early spring, but the timeline for evaluation, mass production and distribution of a vaccine will be significantly longer.
Should you wear a mask?
Like other viruses, we believe COVID-19 is transmitted by fomites (e.g., germs on surfaces) and person-to-person through respiratory droplets (such as sneezing). The latter is thought to be the primary mechanism of transmission. That is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently amended their recommendation on wearing face coverings.
Wearing a mask is not a substitute for physical distancing and good hygiene and should not lull you into a sense of security. If you are feeling ill, do not go out, even with a mask. It's also a good idea to wear a mask at home to help reduce the risk of infecting others if you are sick. And please follow the CDC's guidelines for wearing cloth masks. Surgical masks and N-95 respirators should be reserved for our frontline healthcare workers.
We're just getting started
California made early progress in flattening the curve of infection rates, but even when the number of cases levels off or decreases, we will need to transition to a long-term containment strategy to maintain the progress we've made. For example, we will need to know not only who is infected, but also who has been exposed, who has recovered and who is adequately immune.
With this information, we will need to create interventions to keep people safe. This will require broad-based testing and a robust public health strategy and close coordination among key stakeholders in the state. The recent task force appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to rapidly expand testing for COVID-19 will be foundational to these efforts.