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As Coronavirus Spreads, Here’s What You Can Do

washing hands, coronavirus

As coronavirus, or COVID-19, spreads globally, it’s become an unavoidable topic of conversation that inevitably leads to a set of important questions: What can individuals do to avoid contracting the virus? What will actually help? We spoke to two public health experts on the most vital steps for prevention: Beth Virnig, PhD, MPH, a professor of public health who teaches epidemiology (among other programs) at the University of Minnesota; and Steven Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University. As the news changes every day, here’s what they recommend:

Wash your hands

Experts agree that washing your hands frequently is one of the most important acts in preventing virus spread. Specifically, “clean hands often with soap for at least 20 seconds,” Virnig explains. She advises counting in your head while running hands under the water or “singing the Happy Birthday song twice.” And don’t just grab any soap: Goodman recommends specifically picking up an antibacterial cleanser, and paying “good attention to nail beds, fingertips and spaces between fingers” when washing.

Self-quarantine if you feel sick

“Stay home if you aren’t feeling well, and encourage your friends and coworkers to do the same,” Virnig recommends. In general, Virnig advises keeping your distance from other people. As for what constitutes far enough, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends maintaining at least “three feet of distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.”

Should you start to feel ill, Goodman says to stay out of public areas to avoid spreading the sickness. “If you do get mild cold or flu symptoms, do not run immediately to your doctor or a health care facility; they can’t do much for you, and you can contaminate both others and the facility itself,” he notes. “If you have to go out, even to a store, try to protect others by staying away from them, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, maybe wearing a mask or gloves. But if you develop more than mild symptoms, particularly if you have any trouble breathing, then seek immediate care..”

Refrain from touching your face

Goodman advises against touching your face, eyes, nose, and mouth since “you can transmit a virus in a single touch.” While coming into contact with a contaminated surface won’t immediately confirm the spread, infection occurs when you touch your eyes, your mouth, or the inside of the nose. “You can also be infected by breathing in infected droplets or virus suspended in the air from a cough or sneeze,” he says, “but those don’t last as long in the air as they do on surfaces.” Another solution is to wipe down your surroundings with disinfectant wipes before coming into contact with them.

Carry hand sanitizer

Although washing with soap and water is king, coating hands with hand sanitizer is a handy on-the-go method. “I only use sanitizer when I don’t have access to soap and water,” Virnig says. The CDC recommends an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol (for example, Purell has 70%), and Goodman provides helpful tips on proper use: “The virus does not instantly die on contact [with hand sanitizer],” he says. “You have to rub it completely around your hands, with particular attention to your fingertips, fingernails, and spaces between your fingers for at least 10 to 15 seconds. Your hands should still be wet at 15 seconds. A mere swipe with an alcohol wipe that dries almost immediately is not enough.”

“By the way,” he adds, “99%+ alcohol does not work so well; it needs a little water in the mix to kill the viruses best.”

Stock up on essentials

Beyond hand soap, Virnig recommends supplying your home with a few essentials. “I would make sure you have at least a little food in your house in case you decide to stay at home for a few days,” she says. When you’re doing bulk buying, remember that surgical masks do not need to be top of the list. “The standard paper surgical masks on the news have virtually no protective value for healthy people,” explains Goodman. “However, for people with cold or flu symptoms—even if they don’t know the cause—they can prevent coughing or sneezing the droplets into the air that infect others.” Otherwise, masks are most important for health care workers taking care of sick people.

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