Whenever people gather, there are opportunities to spread germs. From one recent corporate conference in Boston, where 175 people gathered, for instance, the new coronavirus spread to more than 100 people. It is not every gathering that would be so contagious, however, it’s impossible to know ahead of time, who will be coughing or sneezing at the event. And remember: you don’t have to have symptoms to be contagious.
That’s why United States President Donald while declaring the coronavirus epidemic a national emergency on March 16, said Americans to avoid gatherings of 10 or more for the next 15 days, including restaurants, bars and food courts, along with discretionary travel. It is also why more US states took extra steps to close restaurants and bars. It’s why schools and universities in different countries around the world are closing and people in those countries encouraged to work from home.
Essentially, the governments in those countries want their citizens to stay apart, by observing self-distancing or maintain social distance (which is another way of saying the same thing.) If we don’t get within 6 feet of another person, or at least lessen the number of people we let into this 6-foot zone, we will cut our chances of getting sick, says Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, a professor of medicine and director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“At this point, we’ve got nothing else, which is why people are willing to jump on board,” she says.
It’s hard to make life-altering decisions based on what may seem like a theoretical threat to those who apparently aren’t infected.
“I and many other Italians just didn’t see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see,” Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed published over the weekend, headlined: “A coronavirus cautionary tale from Italy: Don’t do what we did.” Now, the entire nation is on lockdown. “In the end,” Ferraresi wrote, “each of us is giving up our individual freedom in order to protect everybody, especially the sick and the elderly.”
That’s the best approach right now, echoes Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
“It seems like in the U.S., people are really starting to take this seriously and we are starting to see cities empty out,” he says. “I can only hope that this is going to be beneficial to reduce the peak of the curve of this epidemic and slow it down.”
Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and no vaccine to protect against it, though researchers all over the world are rushing to develop both. Treatments are likely to come first, with one already being tested; vaccines could take several years to be approved and then made on a large enough scale to make a difference.
For people who think “I’m going to get it anyway, so why bother” — yes, it’s possible that 40 to 70 per cent of the public may ultimately get COVID-19, says Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the use of new and underused vaccines for low-income countries and outbreaks.
But if it’s unrestrained in the community, “then, it’s a numbers game,” he says. Several Chinese doctors died, despite being in their late 20s and early 30s. “If enough young people get it, there will certainly be deaths” among them, he says.
Tips and tricks aplenty
So, what does it mean to socially distance yourself? Here are some guidelines from Marrazzo, Mina, and the United States Centres for Disease Control:
• Stay at least 6 feet away from other people, if possible.
Avoid sports arenas, theaters, museums, and other places where you are likely to come into contact with large numbers of people.
• Avoid restaurants or bars, salons, etc
Mina, who ordered takeout over the weekend, says that’s a better way to go. Many states are already ordering bars and restaurants to close, except for takeout and delivery. It may also be a good idea to stay away from hairdressers, barbers, and nail salons, for instance, because these folks have to get closer than 6 feet. Massages may be great for easing stress, but you might consider finding another path right now.
• Skip playdates, parties, sleepovers, or families visiting each other’s houses.
• Do not visit nursing homes, rehab centers, or assisted living facilities
Older people are at highest risk for complications and death from coronavirus. Find virtual ways, such as FaceTime or Skype video visits, to lessen the social isolation of people in these kinds of facilities.
• Riding mass transit is a major challenge because it’s hard to stay six feet from other straphangers. Having fewer people go to work will help cut the risk for those who don’t have an alternative.
• Arm yourself with some soap and hand sanitizer
It is a dirty world out there! Door handles, lift control buttons, office tables, car and commuter bus seats are surfaces just crawling with germs that can make you sick.
Wash your hands frequently and longer than you usually do. The recommended length of time for handwashing is 20 seconds, or about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday to You” through twice. Soap and water is just as good if not better than hand sanitizers. But hand sanitizers are okay to use if you can’t get to soap and running water.
The virus can remain alive for up to three days on hard surfaces, meaning if you touch a metal doorknob that someone with the virus has recently touched, you could pick up the virus. (But the CDC does not consider this to be a major way the virus spreads.)
• Strictly avoid touching your face, especially your eyes and mouth.
Don’t wear a mask unless you are sick yourself. Every available mask may soon be needed by health care workers, and masks haven’t been shown to prevent healthy people in the general public from falling ill.
So, don’t forget to get enough sleep, and ease stress by exercising, talking with friends and family, and practicing your hobbies, if possible. Walks outside and hikes can be a good way to get exercise without coming into close contact with others. If you must go to the gym, wipe down equipment before and after use, but exercising outdoors is a much better idea, as people might emit more virus particles when they are breathing heavily.
• Postpone all non-essential trips
• Purchase prescription medications that can last one to three months if possible.
• Know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19
These include fever, coughing, and body aches. If you think you may have COVID-19, call ahead before going to your doctor’s office or an emergency room to avoid spreading germs to others.
• Be ready to self-isolate if need be
If you are sick or have likely been exposed to the virus, you should take even more extreme measures, staying at home and sending others to the store and on other crucial errands on your behalf. If you live with others, you should try to isolate yourself as much as you can, staying alone in a bedroom and using a dedicated bathroom, if possible. Obviously, frequent hand-washing becomes even more important for everyone in this situation.
People over 65 and those with reduced immunity because of cancer treatment, other medications, or medical conditions that weaken the immune system as well as people in contact with either of these groups need to be particularly careful.
“I realize that not everyone can do everything,” Asaf Bitton, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, wrote on Medium. “But we have to try our absolute best as a community, starting today. It is a public health imperative. If we don’t do this now voluntarily, it will become necessary later involuntarily, when the potential benefits will be much less than doing so right now.”
How long will we need to keep this up? No one can predict how quickly the danger will pass. In China, at the epicenter of the outbreak, where the virus raged out of control for weeks, the government shut down all public life and enforced quarantines beginning almost two months ago, and they haven’t let everyone out yet.
It is noteworthy that President Donald Trump said at a White House press conference that experts had told him the outbreak could last until July or August. That doesn’t necessarily mean people would be in self-quarantine for that long. The duration of the self-distancing strategy would be determined developments along the way.
• Adapted from WebMD Health News