PM Jacinda Ardern dispels Coronavirus myths with science experts

NZ 16/03/2020

The Prime Minister has sat down with two health experts to dispel some of the myths surrounding the coronavirus COVID-19, such as how it's spread and whether surgical masks actually help keeping it at bay. 

Jacinda Ardern was joined by her Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard, and Michelle Dickinson, a British nanotechnologist and science educator based in New Zealand, known as Nanogirl. 

In a video posted to Ardern's Facebook page, the health experts helped to clear up some of the questions surrounding the spread of COVID-19, which has so far infected at least five New Zealanders. 

"I see people wearing masks," Ardern said. "[What's] your views on masks? Is there any reason why masks are something that people should be buying?"

Dr Dickinson said if you don't have symptoms, there is no need to wear one. 

"The virus can still get in through your eyes, so if somebody's going to sneeze on you, it won't protect your eyes - the mask will only protect your nose," she said. "The people who will need to be wearing masks right now are if you are symptomatic."

She said only wear a mask if you have symptoms because "we know that the particles that you sneeze out could possibly infect people - so what that does is keeps those particles inside your mask" and you "can't re-infect yourself". 

The Prime Minister said the Government has 9 million masks at the ready as part of New Zealand's pandemic plan - particularly for health workers who are exposed to not just COVID-19, but other viruses too. 

Dr Dickinson pointed out that masks people are buying at supermarkets are called "surgical masks" and the problem with them is that they have gaps so they're "not fully protecting you" - therefore, healthcare workers wear fully-sealed ones. 

Dr Gerrard also touched on the growing public fear of air travel, as New Zealand's confirmed cases of COVID-19 are individuals who have recently travelled to regions where it has spread, such as Italy and Iran. 

From left: PM's Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Michelle Dickinson, a British nanotechnologist and science educator based in New Zealand. Photo credit: Facebook / Jacinda Ardern

"If you were really unlucky and walking down the plane and touch a surface, maybe - that's what we'd call a casual contact so there would be a really low chance of getting it," Dr Gerrard said. 

"But the people we're worried about are people in close contact... If someone had measles on the plane you'd be much more worried because it could spread in the air."

Measles is an airborne disease, while it's believed COVID-19 is not.

Dr Dickinson said it's also important to "remember that airplanes are one of the best filtration air-conditioning systems in the world". 

"People have said, 'Well it's going to get into the air,' but actually there's a great filtration there in modern planes to actually filter some of these particles out, including viruses and bacteria."

Last week, Ardern announced that the travel ban on Iran and China would remain until further notice, and that travellers to New Zealand from South Korea and northern Italy would have to self-isolate for 14 days. 

Ardern asked the health experts if self-isolation truly helps. 

"We've had over 8000 people doing that and people have been really questioning whether or not it's actually a useful tool."

Dr Gerrard said self-isolation is "the single most useful thing, because we don't have a vaccine yet - that's probably more than a year away". 

She said scientists are "working incredibly hard but that's just how long they take to make... We don't have specific drugs so all we can do is keep apart from people so we don't spread it". 

The health experts also provided some advice to parents who might want to explain to their children what COVID-19 is, now that it's a prominent discussion point in the news. 

Dr Dickinson described COVID-19 as a "tiny ball" and "sticking out of the virus are little dangly bits". 

She said the difference between COVID-19 and the common cold is that, with a cold, the "dangly bits that attach to our nose" whereas for COVID-19 they attach to the lungs - hence the different symptoms. 

"The best thing to do is let the virus stay there, keep our hands clean, so that if we are touching it we're washing it off, and not to touch our face because that's how the virus gets into the place that it needs to go."