SALT LAKE CITY — As health officials in the United States deal with the broader impact of the coronavirus, it’s a good time for people to learn how to protect themselves and slow its spread.
Officials are crossing their fingers that the virus will wait until flu season dies down to free up some hospital beds. The flu has been taking a very nasty, even deadly, toll this year, and hospitals could come up short on surge capacity if both influenza and the coronavirus are circulating in a community.
But as concern rises over COVID-19, the previously unseen coronavirus that first sickened people in China, infectious disease experts say folks can do a lot to prepare and minimize the spread of the disease, which can run the gamut from mild to deadly illness.
Some steps are more valuable than others.
One big question is whether you need a face mask — and where to get one. They’re starting to appear on faces in American streets.
In Utah, several pharmacies and stores were sold out when a Deseret News reporter went looking. And sellers on Amazon who have run out of masks are warning people to avoid getting “counterfeit” face masks, though there’s no clear standard on what a “real” face mask is or what kind offers the best protection. Some folks are touting masks normally used to prevent inhaling dust, while others point to the accordion masks common in health care settings.
The World Health Organization, which is the agency that will decide when or if to call the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, has a lot to say about face masks.
Masks, it says, are most effective in two situations: When they’re worn by a person who is ill, to prevent passing the virus to others, or when worn by someone who is taking care of a person believed to have COVID-19. Someone who’s coughing and sneezing should wear a mask.
It’s not necessary to wear a face mask just walking down the street. A mask might help in a crowd, but in a real community-wide outbreak, people should avoid crowds. Stay home.
Masks alone won’t provide adequate protection, though. According to the WHO, “They are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.”
And a mask won’t help if it’s not worn properly.
Wash your hands before donning a mask. Wear it snugly so there are no gaps. Don’t touch it while you wear it and if you do, wash those hands again. Also, never rewear a single-use face mask. And after you remove it, without touching the front of the mask, toss it in a closed bin and — you guessed it — wash your hands yet again.
If the hand washing part seems repetitive, it is. It’s also probably the most important step to avoiding infection and infecting others.
Experts warn that wearing a mask may give people a false sense of security. Masks may reduce but don’t remove all risk of being infected. They are more effective at keeping illness to oneself than protecting someone from becoming ill.
Much of the advice on protecting yourself from COVID-19 is pretty basic, but there’s a reason it seems so familiar. It hinges on hygiene principles even little kids learn.
“Washing your hands really does work. Avoiding sick people really does work. Avoiding crowds really does work,” said Dr. Andrew T. Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah and a consultant to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Right now, COVID-19 is not circulating anywhere in America, though there are cases being treated here that involve people who had traveled to or were closely connected to people who had traveled to China. They are quarantined.
When it starts circulating in the community, Pavia said that people should distance themselves from other people where it’s reasonable to do so. Schools could offer online classes temporarily. Workplaces could encourage telecommuting by those who can work from home. Employers need to let workers know it’s OK to stay home when they’re sick. In this case, it’s a must.
“Those tools can really work,” Pavia said.
Folks need to break some habits, too.
Stop touching your face.
Stop shaking hands.
There are also ways to prepare that make a lot of sense.
While no one suggests stockpiling or creating a basement bunker to hunker down in, making sure you could live without going to the grocery store for a few days is a good idea, Pavia said.
Be sure, too, that you have a couple weeks’ worth of the medications you and your family members take regularly.
“You don’t want to hoard,” Pavia said, “but have a cushion in case of a backlog at the pharmacy.”
One big worry with the coronavirus has been the impact on the supply chain for all kinds of goods, since so much of what Americans use comes in from China and other countries.
Have alcohol-based hand sanitizer, soap and toilet paper on hand.