Coronavirus: Dr. Ravina Kullar Talks Vaccines, Medical Masks and More Tips for Staying Healthy

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As concern continues to grow over the worldwide spread of COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus, many are taking proactive measures to keep themselves safe from the flu-like virus, which can be fatal in the most extreme cases.

Musical acts like BTS and Avril Lavigne have canceled tour dates in countries with high levels of coronavirus cases, film and television projects like The Amazing Race have shut down production and film premieres like the one for the upcoming James Bond epic, No Time to Die, have been canceled over public health concerns.

Some celebs have even taken to posting selfies in medical masks, showing fans and followers their attempts stay safe from the COVID-19 virus.

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Infectious disease researcher Dr. Ravina Kullar spoke with ET on Monday about the threat of the virus, saying she's "very concerned" about the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and around the world, but cautioning that there are currently greater threats to American public health -- the flu, for example.

"We're prepared here," Dr. Kullar explains. "I think we need to give the CDC, and our local public health authorities, a lot more credit where it's due. We were all ready to go when Ebola was here, SARS was in place. So we have the systems in place. In other countries, I would be more concerned, but in the United States, we have a good grasp on things here."

Read on to learn more about the threat COVID-19 posts, the best ways to keep yourself and your family safe from the virus, and why you shouldn't be rushing out to buy medical masks.

ET: As a medical expert, what is your current assessment of the threat COVID-19 poses, both globally and to the American public?

Dr. Ravina Kullar: I'm very concerned because what we're seeing now, at least in the U.S., we're seeing these community cases that are popping up. So, I'm sure you heard the news that in Washington, there have now been two deaths reported and it's been found that there are more community cases that we're seeing in various states. So California, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois, Arizona, Florida. They're just a few states that you've seen that there are cases of people that weren't even traveling or no linkage to anyone that was traveling to Wuhan or any of the other high areas, which is very concerning. As a world, as of today, this morning, 6:00 a.m.Geneva time, China reported about 80,000 cases and close to 3,000 deaths.

But what's concerning to me is the transmissibility in the rest of the world. Outside of China, there have been about 10,000 cases in 75 countries and 127 deaths. All but in one continent, there's at least one case. Two months in, we still don't have some answers to critical questions, such as, where did this virus even come from? How long does it survive on the surface? There has been speculation now that the virus might actually be airborne. How long is the incubation period and [for] those which are infected, how long are they infectious and able to transmit their virus?

Dr. Ravina Kullar
Dr. Ravina Kullar

With the understanding that we're still in the early stages of learning about this virus, what are the top things that you are recommending for people to help protect themselves and protect their families?

One key thing I want to say is anyone that's sick and is displaying these signs and symptoms: a fever, respiratory symptoms, very similar to the flu -- go in and get tested. Now all labs are able to do testing for coronavirus as well. So if you are negative for influenza, you're going to automatically get tested to see if you carry COVID-19. And I would recommend staying away from the rest of the population [until] you get your result back. I also recommend, if you're traveling, don't travel when you're sick. If you aren't sick, just take precautionary measures.

I think there's a huge debate here about the mask. The mask is not recommended by the CDC or the World Health Organization unless you're sick or you're caring for someone that's sick. So precautionary measures just include making sure you wipe down your seat, whether you're traveling on a plane or you're taking some other public transportation... I would also recommend washing your hands with soap and water, ideally. If you don't have that, using hand sanitizer and keeping your hands away from your face. Your face is one of the easiest routes of transmission of infection. You touch your nose, you touch your eyes, you touch your mouth so many times a day. And that's the key way to stay safe from getting any infection.

Medical masks are becoming a commonplace sight around the world as fears about COVID-19 continue to grow. However, you caution that only infected patients should be donning masks -- that healthy people wearing medical masks is actually more dangerous. Can you explain further?

When you're putting on a mask, what we tend to do is that we keep touching our face in adjusting that mask, and that actually breeds more infection onto our face and therefore into our system. And that's opposite of what's recommended. The mask which is recommended [for infected patients and caregivers] is called the N95 mask. Now, the N95 mask has to actually be fitted by a healthcare professional... So just the lay public, you go and you get that N95 mask, you aren't even fitted for it and you're actually doing more harm than anything.

Another concern too is that we're actually at a mask shortage. The people that really need it are the healthcare workers, who are caring for the sick, and the public, who are just purchasing them, it's actually impacting all of healthcare.

Are there any other major misconceptions about the disease that you're hoping to dispel?

I do think that we need to keep in mind, on the grand scheme of things, the flu is a graver concern right now in the United States than COVID-19. I think that COVID-19 is like the flu, but with a better publicist. It's like people have forgotten how deadly the flu is, and the great thing with the flu is that there is a vaccine that's available... In the United States itself, [COVID-19] has got a very low mortality rate. The flu has a much higher mortality rate than COVID-19. So I think that's a huge thing that we want to keep in mind in the grand scheme of things, in the United States.

And we're prepared here. I think we need to give the CDC, and our local public health authorities, a lot more credit where it's due. We were all ready to go when Ebola was here, SARS was in place. So we have the systems in place. In other countries, I would be more concerned, but in the United States, we have a good grasp on things here.

From an entertainment aspect, we're starting to see artists skipping concerts in Asia, film premieres being canceled and overseas film and television productions beginning to shut down. Is this a helpful measure, or is this more about public perception and travel panic?

I do think in those high region areas -- China, any Asian country, Hong Kong, Japan -- I think that's a great idea because we're seeing a lot of cases there and also the close contact of people. Some of these community cases coming out, I think that's going to contain things... Even Italy now, we're seeing in Italy, a lot of cases. So I think that's a good idea. Until we get a handle and grasp on this virus, I think we need to take precautionary measures.

Does that apply also to events like concerts or conventions -- areas where there is a high concentration of people? Should there be concerns over those types of events in the U.S., or more so in these countries with more cases?

So I think it's more in those countries, but you are seeing a lot of these cancellations happening. San Francisco and Orange County declared COVID-19 a public health emergency in their counties. So what you're seeing in San Francisco, there have actually been a lot of tech conferences which have been canceled due to this. And I think a big reason is because of this almost unknown factor that we have.

Beyond antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers, do you have other tips for traveling during the early stages of awareness about this virus?

I think just the Clorox wipes, keeping our hands clean, staying away from those that are sick... I mean, the good thing is that this virus only travels about six feet, so if [someone's] in the front of the plane, if you're sitting in the back of the plane, you likely will not be able to get that virus. But it's something to be mindful of. Just look around, if you see someone that's sick, try to stay away from them. I would say that's a key factor. All we have now is the wipes, hand washing and hand sanitizer.

There have been a few cases where animals have tested positive for the virus. Are there any tips you have to keep pets and animals safe from COVID-19?

Yeah, I mean there's a weak correlation there. There was one pet that was tested positive in China. There was one also in the United States as well. Again, same measures, if your pet is displaying signs and symptoms of any respiratory conditions or is acting strange, definitely take your animal to the veterinarian and get your animal tested.

Finally, is there anything else that you'd like to say or anything else you'd like the public to know about this virus, as we move forward?

I think the great thing, what we're seeing here, is that there are measures being put in place to at least find a vaccine or a cure and a vaccine... But it's still going to be a while before a vaccine is in place.

There's been this anti-vaccine movement too, but now you see the real need for vaccines and why they're so much in need, is to prevent these outbreaks from occurring, prevent viruses and to actually help us.

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

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