COVID-19 Prevention, Basics & Risk Assessments
Elizabeth Matsui, M.D., MHS, breaks down the basics of how to protect against catching the coronavirus. She explains how the virus spreads, what you should to do protect against each method of spread and what to consider when assessing the risk of an activity.
First, she explains, it’s important to understand the three main ways the coronavirus spreads:
- Airborne droplets: The virus travels through the droplets that someone produces when they sneeze or cough. Typically, they travel a bit in the air and then drop to the ground.
- Airborne viral particles: Smaller than airborne droplets, viral particles are sent into the air when people breathe, talk and shout. These travel farther and remain in the air longer than the droplets.
- Contaminated surfaces: Since the coronavirus can linger on surfaces, if you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face, the virus can then infect you through your nose or mouth.
Now, how do you protect yourself? Matsui offers advice based on each type of spread:
- Protecting against airborne droplets: Stay at least 6 feet away from other people — aka social distancing — to avoid catching the droplets they produce before the droplets hit the ground. The farther away from someone you are, the lower the risk.
- Protecting against airborne viral particles: In addition to practicing social distancing, wearing a mask reduces both your chance of catching someone else’s particles and the number of particles you send into the air that could infect other people if you’re infected with the coronavirus and don’t realize it.
- Protecting against contaminated surfaces: Disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs and light switches; frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; and avoid touching your face, in case you inadvertently touched a surface with the coronavirus on it.
Putting all this together helps you assess how risky a certain activity is, Matsui says. Here, there are four main variables to consider:
- Number of people present;
- Behaviors of the other people;
- Duration of the activity;
- Amount of ventilation.
In general, the fewer the people, the lower the risk. If the other people are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, even better. Next, the less time you spend in an enclosed space with other people, the lower the risk. Lastly, well-ventilated areas are better than areas with poor air circulation: Look for indoor spaces that feel like the outdoors, with windows and doors open and air flowing through.
For example, if you need to pick up groceries or a prescription, the methods with the lowest risk are having them delivered or picking them up at curbside or through a window. These scenarios bring you in contact with the fewest people, allow you to take adequate precautions like social distancing, take the least amount of time to complete and keep you outside the building or in your own home.
Adhering to these precautions and carefully assessing the risks of activities, Matsui says, will drastically reduce your risk of catching the coronavirus.
Debunking Mask Myths
Elizabeth Matsui, M.D., MHS, debunks myths regarding why people should wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Matsui is a professor in the departments of Population Health and Pediatrics at Dell Medical School.
Myth No. 1: I was told I didn’t have to wear a mask a couple months ago, so I don’t need to wear one now.
“Well the reason the recommendations have changed is because of science,” Matsui says. “You’re actually witnessing science in action with the changing of the recommendation.”
Matsui says health officials have learned two things about the virus since the original mask recommendations were issued:
- People who are asymptomatic can not only spread the virus, but actually appear to be responsible for much of the spread.
- Breathing and then talking, shouting or singing shoots the virus into the air, where it can spread to other people.
So even — perhaps especially — if you don’t have symptoms, wearing a mask reduces the chances of you spreading the coronavirus to other people.
Myth No. 2: Wearing a mask doesn’t do anything to help me.
While wearing a mask helps you less than it helps other people, Matsui says, the mask does still protect you.
Additionally, wearing a mask sends the signal to other people that masking up is the appropriate thing to do. The more people who wear masks in the community, the lower the infection rate will be.
Myth No. 3: If I’m wearing a mask, I don’t have to worry about social distancing.
This is false, Matsui says. The farther away you are from someone, the less likely you are to be exposed to a large amount of the virus. While wearing a mask provides some protection, it does not replace social distancing.
For more information on how to properly make, wear and wash cloth face masks, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Caring for Chronic Conditions Amid COVID-19
Brandon Allport-Altillo, M.D., MPH, assistant professor in the departments of Population Health and Internal Medicine, explains how people with chronic conditions can safely continue to manage them while also protecting against COVID-19.
In addition to following the general recommendations to avoid getting COVID-19 — stay home unless you need to go out to get something essential; when you do go out, wear a cloth face covering and stay 6 feet away from other people; wash your hands and clean high-touch surfaces often — Allport-Altillo recommended people with chronic conditions take four steps to stay on top of their care:
Keep in contact with your health care provider.Don’t be afraid to call if you have concerns, and ask about telehealth options, where you can talk to your doctor by phone or video chat instead of going to the office. Keeping up regular care can prevent an emergency room trip later. Stay on top of your treatment plan.Don’t skip medications or alter your plan without checking with your provider first. Also, make sure you have at least two weeks’ worth of medications on hand in case you need to stay home for a while. Monitor your condition at home.If you have high blood pressure, it can be helpful to have a blood pressure cuff. If you have diabetes, it’s helpful to have a glucometer. Ask your provider if you don’t have the instruments you need; insurance companies often cover these types of supplies. Write down your readings and symptoms each day, so your provider can see how they change over time. Take care of your physical and mental health.This is a stressful time, and many people are feeling anxious. Stay physically active, such as exercising outdoors — which is considered a low-risk activity if you take the proper precautions — and find ways to reduce stress, such as deep breathing.
Do Not Delay Emergency Care
Kristin Mondy, M.D., advises people to go to the emergency room or hospital if they think they’re having an emergency, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Mondy, the chief of the Division of Infectious Disease in the Department of Internal Medicine, says some types of symptoms that would prompt an ER visit include:
- sudden chest or abdominal pain;
- signs of an acute stroke, such as difficulty speaking or numbness in an arm or a leg;
- sudden difficulty in breathing; and
- new fatigue or dizziness that is extreme.
The ERs and their staffs are prepared — for both emergencies and people who have COVID-19. Hospital staff are taking precautions such as wearing personal protective equipment, and people who have symptoms of COVID-19 are kept in separate areas of the hospital, away from people who do not have those symptoms.
If you think you are having an emergency, Mondy says, do not delay going to a hospital.
How to Care for Yourself if You Have COVID-19
Terrance Hines, M.D. — executive director and chief medical officer of The University of Texas at Austin University Health Services — explains four ways to take care of yourself if you’ve been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Stay home and away from other people to prevent spreading the virus. If you are around people, stay at least six feet away. You will need to stay home a minimum of seven days from the onset of symptoms plus three days after becoming fever-free, with improvement in respiratory symptoms.
Phone a Friend
Ask a friend to put together a self-care kit that might include a digital thermometer, hand sanitizer and a water bottle so you can stay well-hydrated. Most people with COVID-19 have mild illness including fever and cough but are able to recover at home without medical care.
If you’re thinking of going to the doctor, call first to get guidance. However, if you develop emergency warning signs such as trouble breathing or persistent pressure in the chest, get medical attention immediately.
Practice Strict Hygiene
Cover your mouth and nose when you cough. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Don’t share dishes, towels or other items with people at home. Clean surfaces you touch a lot: your phone, doorknobs, remote controls, etc.
Care for Your Mental Health
Isolation can further contribute to the stress of this challenging time. Reach out to a mental health care provider if you are having difficulty dealing with emotions like worry, depression or anxiety. If you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider.
What to Do if You Live With Someone Who Has Coronavirus
It’s important that you sleep in a different room. If you have to share a bathroom, wipe down frequently touched surfaces — like doorknobs, the toilet handle, the sink and the countertop — immediately after the person with the virus uses the bathroom.
The person with COVID-19 should wear a face mask to come out into a common space. Open a window or turn on the air conditioning, because the air movement can help disperse the virus.
There is some concern that animals can carry the virus between people, so if there are pets in your home, you should reduce any interaction between the pet and the person with the virus.
Use Separate Utensils & Dishes
The person with COVID-19 should use separate plates, silverware and cups. They should also prepare their own food and wash their own dishes, if possible. If you have to do these things, wear a mask and gloves. Put the used mask and gloves in a plastic bag, then throw it in the trash. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Keep Visitors Away
This goes without saying: You should have no visitors in the home that are not people who have to be in the home.
As always, wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 to 30 seconds throughout the day and avoid touching your face. Wipe down commonly touched surfaces in the house at least once a day or immediately after the person with the virus uses them.
Handling Mail & Packages Safely
If you are concerned about contracting COVID-19, you can either leave your mail and packages in a safe spot outside for 24 hours before opening them or wear gloves. But every time you put gloves on or off or touch anything from outside your home, you should always wash your hands for 20 seconds. That is the best way you can protect yourself and your family.