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The Best Protection Against COVID-19 Is Knowledge

Good information from a reputable source may save your life

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The restrictions placed on people by the government in the name of public health haven’t been popular particularly since they seem to be continually changing.  They are also fairly vague in many cases. What’s worse, is that people are treating the precautionary measures as if it were items on a menu.  But as we move down the list of precautions they each get exponentially less effective and should always be used together.  I see people huddling together in outdoor social gatherings and not practicing physical distancing as if the sunshine will magically destroy the virus. Or people wearing a mask and standing less than six inches from a stranger.  This article is designed to explain the necessity and efficacy of each of these preventive measures.

First it’s useful to understand what COVID-19 and how it spread.  COVID-19 is a Corona virus—the same family of viruses that produced SARS and the Swine flu.  While it is true that COVID is a form of the flu, our relative ignorance as to how it is contracted and the duration of exposure one needs to become infected makes it more dangerous. We do know that this virus is particularly contagious, has no vaccine to prevent it, has no cure, and there is little in the form of treatment to ease the suffering of those afflicted by it.  This is NOT merely the seasonal flu we’re all used to and comfortable with. Waiting around for someone to develop an effective and safe vaccine feels, to many of us, like a death sentence. 

Like the flu, or influenza, COVID (the designation -19 refers to the year when the disease was first discovered to be infecting people in China) is a respiratory virus, which means that it is spread when people inhale exhaled droplets from infected people. While experts debate whether or not there are other ways in which to become infected, it is increasingly obvious that if other forms of transmittal are possible, the chance of being infected by eating the virus, for example, are remote at best. (But don’t eat the virus…that’s just gross.)

The particles that people exhale—whether through breathing, coughing, or sneezing—can either be large particles (which tend to fall to the ground quickly) or small, aerosol particles which can travel farther and remain infectious longer. In short, it is easier to inhale small particles and become ill than larger particles so we have to have a strategy for protecting ourselves and others against both.

Here are some things you can do to protect yourself and others from spreading the virus arranged by the most effective to the least effective (NOTE: These measures are best when used together, none of these measures alone can offer maximum protection):

Take Care of Yourself

Eating right and exercise will not just lessen your chances of contracting COVID-19 it will also boost your immune system and protect you from other illnesses as well. In this case an ounce of prevention is worth far more than a pound of cure. This is especially true of people who are at heightened risk of contracting the disease or who are at risk of suffering far greater symptoms and even death from the virus.  Recently I was in a grocery store that has special hours (before the store opens to the general public) for at risk populations, offers on-line shopping with store-side pickup, AND home delivery.  My wife and I were at the store at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday and the majority of the other shoppers were octogenarians; the store can only do so much for at risk populations that are indifferent to their vulnerabilities. Zinc and vitamin D3 are thought to reduce one’s chance of becoming ill, but that has not been conclusively proven.  Taking the recommended doses of Zinc and vitamin D3 aren’t likely to be toxic, so taking them as directed may help you to hedge your bets.

Remain Optimistic

This isn’t a Pollyanna, “everything is going to be alright” statement, but we need to face the fact that this isn’t the end of civilization as we know it.  This is not the first pandemic nor will it be the last so all hope is not lost.  Studies have shown that people who maintain a positive mental outlook build resiliency.  Resiliency is your ability to bounce back from trauma or illness AND has been shown to boost your immune system. As Monty Python put it, “Always look at the bright side of life.” Staying away from mental junk food—negative, misleading, and out-and-out lies posted by people on social media—and watching doom and gloom news stories aren’t healthy. These activities are a sure way of bringing you down and lowering your spirits. So take reasonable precautions but also be sure to think positive thoughts. As Abraham Lincoln reputedly said, “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be” and as Mark Renton of “Trainspotting” said, “choose life” he was being sarcastic, but in this case he might just be right. Meditation or prayer can also help you to retain a positive outlook when things seem hopeless.

Stay Away From Sick People

This is advice that no one should have to receive, but your chances of getting sick are significantly lessened if you stay away from people who are obviously ill.  COVID-19 is most typically spread by droplets sneezed (and to a lesser extent coughed) into the air by an infected person and inhaled by an uninfected person—there are other ways of contracting the illness but we will get to those in a moment. Avoiding sick people, and more importantly, tell people not to come to approach or visit you. If you feel the need to visit a sick friend, do so virtually, ideally using Facetime, Zoom, or any one of a dozen or so technologies that allow you to transmit and receive visual images of the other person.  Seeing a friendly face is far more uplifting than receiving a text or even a phone call. 

Maintain Physical Distance from others

People use the term “social distancing” when the more appropriate term is “physical distancing”. The idea is to maintain a safe physical distance from other people not to isolate yourself or your support network.  As mentioned above there are many technologies that allow you not only to talk to your family and friends but to see them as well.  With some softwares you can host virtual parties and quaff a beer with or share a bottle of wine with a friend or two.  You might just be surprised how much that can lift your spirits and yet keep you physically distanced from people.  You want to make sure that neither you nor the people you care about are feeling isolated, pessimistic, or anti-social.  Trust me, it will do you and your loved ones a world of good.

The appropriate physical distance is 6–10 feet from someone that you don’t live with. If you are under 6 feet tall that distance should be just over the distance between your two hands when you outstretch your arms (that distance is equal to your height so adjust accordingly). Wearing a mask does NOT obviate your responsibility to maintain physical distance.

Remember, fist bump or touching elbows as a greeting means that you are not keeping appropriate physical distance and can be easily infected.

Avoid Poorly Ventilated Areas

Well ventilated areas are those areas that remove the infectious air out of the area, typically by sucking the air up to the ceiling where it is then exhausted into the air.  Don’t mistake the presence of fans or even being outdoors as a well-ventilated area—people crowded together at a backyard barbecue or social celebration aren’t protected simply because they are outdoors.  Even in the best ventilated areas you are at risk if you are close enough to an infected person to breath in COVID particles.

Wash Your Hands

Whenever possible wash your hands with hot soapy water (preferably with antibacterial soap) for at least 20 seconds.  I am alarmed at the number of people advising people to wash their hands without recommending hot soapy water.  Some argue that the water out of the average public tap is not hot enough to kill COVID, but that is not an argument with which I will participate. Irrespective of its ability to kill the COVID virus, hot water, and soap is far more likely to wash away the mucus in which the virus lives than cold water with no soap.  So wash your grubby hands. Even if hot soapy water doesn’t kill the COVID virus it will kill bacteria and germs that could lower your immune system.

Wear A Mask

I hate wearing a mask.  Not because indoor public establishments require them, not because the government mandates it, but because in many states they don’t define just what constitutes an acceptable mask.  In Michigan, where I reside, we are only required to wear a face-covering that covers both our mouth and nose. Sounds great right? Some of the masks that I own meet this description but offer no reduction in the possibility of spreading the disease.  So what constitutes an acceptable mask?  People treat masks as interchangeable personal protective equipment and this is patently untrue. According to Johns Hopkins: 

“N95 respirators are made of special material that removes at least 95% of even the small droplets. They’re also manufactured to fit with a tight seal around the nose and mouth so air and viral particles can’t get around the side of the respirator.

Some N95s (not intended for medical use) have valves in them that vent exhaled breath without any filtration. These vented respirators will not provide protection for nearby individuals in the event that the wearer has COVID-19. These masks are not recommended during the COVID-19 pandemic. If only vented N95 respirators are available, gluing the vent shut will help protect people (sic) around you. 

Surgical masks are also made of special material, but they don’t provide a seal around the nose and mouth, meaning that smaller droplets may still be inhaled. Surgical masks are good, however, to protect the nose and mouth from larger droplets from coughs or sneezes, and for preventing infected people from spreading droplets. 

Homemade cloth masks remove some large droplets but provide little protection against aerosols. They cannot provide a seal around the nose and mouth, and their effectiveness is unlikely to be improved by face shields. If surgical masks are not available, cloth masks worn by infected people may reduce the spread of droplets.

Face shields are plastic barriers worn as eye protection in medical settings. They are intended to protect against splashes and direct coughs or sneezes. They have large openings around the side of the face and provide minimal protection against small droplets. They are more comfortable to wear than cloth masks, but should not be considered a substitute for cloth masks.”

Source: https://www.jhsph.edu/covid-19/articles/the-right-mask-for-the-task.html 

While the experts identify the limitations of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19 they come far short of discouraging their use. Even so, there are some important points that the Johns Hopkins article fails to mention:

  1. Masks are about protecting others, not about protecting you
  2. Masks are nowhere even close to being as effective as physically distancing yourself from others.
  3. N95 masks are designed to protect members of at-risk populations and front line/healthcare workers, so if you aren’t a member of either of these groups don’t wear one—shortages of these masks make it harder to combat the disease.
  4. All masks provide some protection, albeit in some cases very little, so wearing a mask, while the last line of defense is absolutely not an effective preventive measure unless it is combined with physical distancing. 
  5. Cloth masks, as indicated, are somewhat effective in catching large particles but do little to keep you from exhaling small particles and making other people sick.  Experts warn that if you sneeze or cough into your mask you should remove it immediately and replace it with a fresh mask, meaning that you will need to carry additional masks—this applies to all masks, not just cloth masks. 
  6. Inserting a filter into your mask, as some are designed to allow you to, has been judged by experts to increase the likelihood of trapping particles in your mask and make them far more likely to infect others. 
  7. Masks must cover both your mouth and your nose. Improperly worn masks are as ineffectual as no mask at all.

So why should we wear masks when they are apparently so ineffective at spreading COVID? Because business owners can refuse service to people refusing to wear a mask because many are terrified by the prospect of being infected, and mostly because it’s the right thing to do—wearing a mask is the most obvious and observable indication that the person wearing it is doing his or her utmost to keep you from becoming infected. You may not be able to tell that a person washes his or her hands often, or that he or she maintains appropriate physical distancing, in all cases, but the people who wear masks tend to take all precautions more seriously.

But a more serious question is why should I worry about COVID when I don’t feel sick and the people I am sitting close to aren’t coughing or sneezing.  Some people have cases so mild that they don’t exhibit symptoms, or the symptoms that they do exhibit are so mild they go unnoticed.  Effectively everyone is a potential carrier—scientists still aren’t sure if a person can get infected more than once—so even if you feel fit as a fiddle you could still be infectious.

We will get through this. We need only keep our heads and do many things that we should have been doing all along—since when is “contactless food preparation” a novel idea. What were people doing before the pandemic? Is there anyone among us that didn’t know that preparing food (or eating food for that matter) without before washing one’s hands is a bad idea? In a world where we touch phones, tablets, kiosks, ATM keys, and a host of other keypads do we really need to be reminded to wash our hands or to use hand sanitizers? So hang tough people we got this, and even if the precautions seem restrictive, inconvenient, or silly, most will protect us from many other illnesses besides COVID.

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