A New World, Shaped By COVID-19

12:26 minutes

Intensive care unit in hospital, bed with monitor, ventilator
Credit: Shutterstock

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

Americans are being told that we are living in a new normal—social distancing, vigilant hygiene, and restrictions placed on schools and businesses will be part of our lives for a while. We’re also hearing that the world will be different after the coronavirus, that the fabric of our society will forever be changed. And we may be starting to see some of those changes play out right now. 

China, Israel and South Korea are all using smartphone location data to track the coronavirus. Italian doctors are being forced to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. And bad actors are taking advantage of coronavirus fears to spread malware and perform phishing attacks. Sophie Bushwick, Tech Editor for Scientific American, joins guest host John Dankosky to report on the news stories shaping our new reality.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky sitting in for Ira Flatow. And I just want to start by telling you Ira is fine. He’s just spending a week at home instead of his planned trip to watch baseball spring training. Don’t worry. He will be back next week. And hopefully, hopefully baseball will be back soon too.

Later this hour we’ll be talking with Jane Goodall. This year marks the 60th anniversary of chimp research in the Gombe. But first, Americans are being told that we’re living in a new normal, social distancing, vigilant hygiene, restrictions placed on schools and businesses that will be part of our lives for quite a while. We’re also hearing that the world will be different after coronavirus, that the fabric of our society will forever be changed, and we may be starting to see some of those changes play out right now.

Here to bring us some of the stories of this new reality is Sophie Bushwick. She’s tech editor for Scientific American. Sophie, welcome back to the show. Thanks for joining us.


JOHN DANKOSKY: First of all, let’s address the news coming out this week that people with mild or asymptomatic cases of this novel coronavirus are doing more to spread the disease than scientists first thought. So explain this to us.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So as early as earlier this month, health officials were saying that they thought the majority of the spread of coronavirus was coming from people who were already showing physical symptoms. They were maybe coughing, and thus spraying, that had viruses in it on their surroundings and other issues like that.

But more and more studies have been coming out that suggest actually people with no symptoms at all could be spreading the virus. In fact, some people who were infected with the virus and not yet showing symptoms had what’s called a higher viral load. That means there’s more that they produce. So for example, if someone were to cough and to have a droplet of saliva go, the droplet of saliva from somebody who’s not showing symptoms would have more viruses in it than a droplet of saliva from someone who is showing symptoms.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is pretty scary. Do these people go on to have more serious symptoms later on though?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Some of them do. Some of them don’t. Some of them– what we do know is that a lot of people who get infected, when they first can be tested for the virus, they might not necessarily be showing any symptoms of it. Some of them later go on to develop mild or severe symptoms. And in other cases, somebody might not realize that they could have a case so mild they wouldn’t even realize that they had been infected. But they do know that there’s at least one outbreak that they traced to people who were infected but didn’t have any visible symptoms.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is a lot more evidence, it seems, for social distancing, even if you’re not sick. And you don’t know if someone is sick when you’re near them. You know, this is really something that we have to take seriously, even more so than we thought before.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. I think that somebody– one thing that officials have said is the way to think about social distancing is not that you’re trying to avoid getting sick yourself, but assume that you have it and then you’re trying to keep other people safe.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, OK, so there’s one scary story. I promise, Sophie, we’re going to get to at least one story that’s not incredibly frightening today.


JOHN DANKOSKY: But let’s go to another scary news story here. Hospital respirators are in short supply in Italy. We know about that. But we may soon be seeing the same problem here in the US. Tell me more.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So hospitals in the United States have a limited number of intensive care unit beds, ICU beds, that are used to treat severely sick patients. And they have a limited number of ventilators So one thing that can happen in severe cases of COVID-19 and pneumonia is that the people who are sick need to be put on a ventilator that will breathe for them because their own lungs can’t do the job.

The problem is New York and other states across the country have a limited number of ventilators currently being used, and the worry is that we’re going to have more patients than ventilators soon, which is going to force health care workers to make these awful life and death decisions about who gets lifesaving technologies.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And of course, those are decisions nobody wants to have to make. But the numbers here are really staggering. 18,000 ventilators could be needed in a place like New York City. And how many are available now?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, there are fewer than 10,000 currently in New York. And the problem is many of them are actually in use. So they’re not necessarily– even that count is, there’s thousands of them, many of them are actually being used right now. And so you can’t just take a patient off of one of those ventilators to give it to a COVID-19 patient. They think they could be short by 16,000 ventilators, which is very scary.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So whenever we’re talking about flattening the curve, right, this is how we keep a shortage like this from happening.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. This is exactly what people are talking about with flattening the curve. The idea is you want to have fewer people at any given time needing these machines, needing a bed in an ICU, and needing professional care from doctors and nurses and other workers who are relying on personal protective equipment like masks and gowns that may soon be in short supply.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So there’s also news this week that the government is in talks to use anonymous cell phone location data to help better understand how coronavirus is spreading. Tell us more about what they’re trying to do here.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So what they’re talking about, so there’s two different kinds of things people think about when they’re talking about tracking the location of your smartphone. So this is a case where they would use the location data from people’s smartphones to just build up a picture of how people move around certain areas of a city or even of the country.

So this isn’t a case of big brother following you individually around to see who you’ve interacted with. Instead, when researchers are building models of how viruses spread and trying to figure out how quickly they spread, it helps to know what the foot traffic might be like in Times Square on a given day.

So they could say, well, let’s assume that people follow these walking patterns. What would happen if one of the people walking through here was carrying what was, in fact, the coronavirus and potentially spreading it. How would that simulation look. How would that same simulation look if you assume you’ve got 10 people or 100 people on a given day.

So this is just helping researchers better track how quickly cases are going to increase and how quickly this virus is going to spread. That’s the specific application they’re looking at. Now, on the other hand, other countries are using more individual data. And what they’re trying to do is, for example, some companies even here have talked about potentially developing an app that could tell you, hey, you were in proximity to someone who was known to be infected with coronavirus on X day. Here’s what you should do about it. Maybe they should tell the person that they need to quarantine themselves, or that they need to warn their own contacts to get tested.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is something that China is trying right now. I’ve been reading that Israel is doing something like this. I assume that privacy experts are pretty scared about this idea though?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Correct. So the idea of using anonymized data, privacy experts are more on board for that because you’re not tracking any individual person. The idea of this other app, it really opens up some scary implications because what if the government decided to prosecute you going on a walk if you were infected? It just opens up the door to even more privacy invasions. And it also opens up the door to an application that maybe people could keep using after the coronavirus crisis passes.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. One more scary story here. Reports of a lot of bad actors out there using the fear of coronavirus now to spread malware and perform phishing attacks on people, like spreading another type of virus. What’s happening?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So in this case, it’s a digital virus that you want to avoid being infected with. So the idea– there’s a couple different things going on. One is some bad actors are sending out emails that claim to be maybe with health alerts. They might say– they might include a link that looks like it goes to the CDC website, but in fact redirects you to a website that’s going to try to steal your information or download software.

Other cases are phishing attacks where it might direct you to a website where it says, here’s some important health information. Sign in using certain credentials, using maybe your email password. You want to avoid those websites as well. And then another thing that’s going on is John Hopkins has developed a map that maps the spread of coronavirus in real time.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s a really helpful tool. However, what hackers have done is they’ve taken that map and they’re using it to lure people to other websites. So they might say, here’s a link to the map, and you click the link, and then that website might tell you, before you view the map you need to download this software. And then that software would infect your computer.

So if you’re looking for a map, please only go to the one on the John Hopkins website. That one is safe. And in general, just be cautious about downloading software from unknown websites and about entering your credentials in unknown websites. Be careful about clicking links in your emails, even if those emails claim to be about health information.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So something else we’re hearing a lot about is deep cleaning. Planes are getting deep cleaned. Cruise ships are being deep cleaned. Even offices are right now. I don’t know, Sophie, what does deep cleaning really mean right now?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: OK. So deep cleaning is one of those terms that can mean different things depending on who’s saying it. When people say they are– or when organizations say they’re doing deep cleaning, they mean they’re doing very thorough cleaning. But there’s not a specific formula that that refers to.

So some of the things that they’re doing are pretty cool. For example, some airplanes have started using misting cabins or certain specific high traffic areas with this vapor of disinfectant to try to cover as many surfaces as they can.

In other cases, deep cleaning means– so for things like cloth and carpets and soft surfaces. You can’t clean that with disinfectant the way you can wipe off a harder surface. So in some cases what that means is washing clothing and bedding in hotter water than would normally be used in an attempt to kill pathogens.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I mean, we’ve all had the experience that planes are pretty gross places to be. Why exactly weren’t they doing this in the first place?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. I mean, if you ride a plane– whether now or later, if you’re on a plane trip, I highly recommend that you bring disinfecting wipes and wipe down the area around you and anything you might touch. Because yes, those things typically do not get cleaned as often, simply because there’s just not time.

So a lot of times a plane lands at an airport. The passengers disembark. And they need to load the plane right back up. So they’ve got a limited amount of time. And they’re going to focus their cleaning efforts on high traffic areas. They’re going to try cleaning the restrooms. They’re going to try cleaning things that get touched a lot, like handles and knobs. And they’re not necessarily going to have time to clean the tray on your seat back.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I would guess not. Hey, Sophie, before I let you go, we’ve a little bit less than a minute left. People were trying to escape from this terrible thing that we’re all stuck in right now. And they’re escaping by actually watching movies and playing games about pandemics. What’s going on?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So there’s been a surge in popularity for things like the movie Contagion, which is about a fictional pandemic and for games in which you’re trying to– you play a member of a public health team fighting against a pandemic. One game called Plague Inc., people actually crashed the website trying to download it.

And so what could be going on here is psychologically it feels good to think that you are taking action and doing something instead of being helpless. And these games and media help people do that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Sophie Bushwick is tech editor for Scientific American. Sophie, thanks so much for the update, and stay safe out there if you would please.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I will. You too.

JOHN DANKOSKY: When we come back, Jane Goodall joins us to talk about her work with the chimps and her work today encouraging hope and conservation around the world. Stay with us.


JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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About Katie Feather

Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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