Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, appeared on America’s Newsroom on Fox News to discuss the concerns of coronavirus spreading at the Conservative Political Action Conference after one attendee tested positive. He proceeded to get several things wrong about the virus.
“What we can’t do is get people thinking that the test is what matters,” Schlapp told host Sandra Smith.
“What matters is your symptoms. What matters is your symptoms, Sandra. I don’t have any. The president doesn’t have any. These lawmakers [who had attended CPAC and are now self-quarantining] don’t have any. And one more important thing: they’re outside the all-important nine-day windows. They do not have corona.”
Despite Schlapp’s assurance that he, the president, and the lawmakers in question are in the clear, it is unclear exactly when it is safe to make that call without testing. Abundant research indicates that in most cases symptoms will actually display themselves sooner than the nine-day period that Schlapp cites, though a lengthier incubation period is possible. Symptoms typically start to appear about five days after infection, though it can take the disease 14 days to incubate. It is exceptionally rare for incubation to take longer than 14 days, and only does so in 101 out of every 10,000 cases.
That wasn’t Schlapp’s only erroneous claim. Contrary to what he says, it is possible to have coronavirus and not display any symptoms. The CDC’s “frequently asked questions” page on the coronavirus states that “There have also been reports of asymptomatic infection with COVID-19 [the formal name for the coronavirus disease].”
Harvard’s Medical School reiterated this point in layman’s terms on its Coronavirus Resource Center page: “Some people infected with the virus have no symptoms.”
And the number of people who display no symptoms or only very mild symptoms is much higher than you might think. In an interview with The Dispatch, Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said, “at least according to the Chinese experience, about 80 percent of people who were infected with this virus had either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic infections.”
“It’s also confirmed by the South Korean data, where they found people who were shedding virus but were not symptomatic.”
(“Shedding” in virology refers to the expulsion and release of a virus.)
Since oftentimes no symptoms manifest, the diagnostic test is, contrary to what Schlapp claimed, a better indicator of the presence of the virus than the manifestation of symptoms. Offit pointed out that the test is also a better indicator since many coronavirus symptoms are shared by other illnesses: “There is obviously going to be overlap between COVID-19 and other winter respiratory viruses. So the PCR test would be the best way to determine whether you’re infected with COVID-19.”
Further, it is possible for individuals with the coronavirus to be contagious before they display any symptoms and for those who never develop symptoms to still be a carrier and transmit the disease to others—though neither of these scenarios are common and the vast majority of cases have been spread due to symptomatic transmission.
Smith attempted to correct Schlapp, saying, “the most contagious point, we have been told so far, is when you’re asymptomatic. So that is what leads to other problems.”
She too is in error, going too far in her correction. The most contagious point is not when the infected are asymptomatic, but rather when there are symptoms present. According to Dr. Offit, the presence of virus is at its highest before symptoms appear and shedding often starts before symptoms, but that doesn’t mean that’s when those with the virus are most contagious.
“Typically in viral infections you usually shed virus most, actually, the day or two before you develop symptoms,” said Dr. Offit. “When you develop symptoms, you’re developing symptoms because you’re making a response to the virus. And as a general rule that’s when the amount of virus in upper respiratory system secretions starts to decrease.”
“Are you contagious when you shed the virus? I think the answer is it’s possible, but less likely. The reason being that if the virus is spread by small droplets, you’re more likely to create small droplets if you cough or sneeze.”
Schlapp stood his ground in response to Smith’s rebuttal and claimed, “but that is a very, very, very one in a million case. 99.9 percent of the people will experience symptoms in five to six days and the incubation period, the critical one, is nine days.”
In fact, according to Annals of Internal Medicine, 95 percent of those who contract the disease display symptoms in 4.5 to 5.8 days and 97.5 percent do so within 11.5 days. The 99.9 percent number that Schlapp states isn’t reached until around Day 14.
The American Conservative Union did not reply to a request for comment.
Photograph of Matt Schlapp at CPAC by Samuel Corum/Getty Images.
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