The first confirmed Covid-19 case in the US was on January 21st, 2020. Two months later the first state-wide shelter-in-place orders began. Since then, the nation and world has watched the disease spread with a careful eye, and almost everyone has become an amateur epidemiologist.
Now, as scientists study the SARS-CoV-2 virus to learn not only how it infects but also how it might be stopped or slowed down, the population as a whole is preparing to re-enter the world equipped with all we have learned. We are all responsible for changing our behavior to help slow and stop this pandemic. As you think about going back out into a world ravaged by a pandemic, we’ve compiled some helpful information that you can use to keep you and your family safe.
Look to the experts first
The primary source of information for all of us should be science-based organizations such as the CDC, which maintains a COVID-19 information and resources web page, and the WHO. They highlight four primary actions to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. You’re almost certainly already familiar with them. They include:
- Wear a mask. Even cloth face coverings can reduce the spread of bioaerosols from the nose and mouth. While useful to protect the wearer from infection, since N95 masks are in short supply they should be reserved for healthcare workers.
- Keep 6 feet of social distance. This is a good rule, but keep in mind that infectious particles can travel farther than that.
- Wash hands frequently. Use antimicrobial soap followed by a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that are often touched with EPA-approved disinfectants.
The CDC also recommends two other things to do if you’re sick- monitor your health and cover any coughs or sneezes with your elbow or a tissue. Then, of course, don’t touch your face.
The WHO also recommends not smoking or doing anything that could harm the lungs’ ability to repair themselves or resist injury.
In the US, our elected officials are rolling out a three phase plan of returning to deal with the spread of the virus. Check the news once a day to see how the officials in your area are deciding when and how to reopen, and they might refer to the following phases:
- Phase 1: Vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions continue to shelter in place. Everyone else should practice social distancing, only attend gatherings with less than 10 people, minimize travel, keep common areas in businesses closed, and telework if possible.
- Phase 2: Vulnerable individuals continue to shelter in place. 50-person gatherings are allowed with proper social distancing and precautions.
- Phase 3: Vulnerable individuals should wear masks and socially distance, but can go outside again. Everyone else should just minimize large gatherings and maintain hygiene standards by disinfecting surfaces and washing hands.
Each state and county has discretion on what can be open when, but the general criteria are areas with both a case rate and Covid mortality rate that decreases for 14 days straight, available medical space for any new Covid patients, and available testing for anyone with symptoms can start opening by going to phase 1.
Since the epidemiologists are fairly certain that people who test positive for Covid-19 were infectious before their symptoms developed, it’s very important to take precautions and prepare.
How to prepare your home
The first place to start preparing to go outside is inside. Transmission of disease between family members is so common that individual households are treated as the same person in epidemiological studies. If one person is exposed by having coffee with a neighbor, everyone in the house is exposed. The home is a great place to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Looking to the CDC guidelines, the first thing you will have to prepare for is daily cleaning. Though Covid-19 primarily spreads from person to person, it will still reduce risk to keep things clean. There are a lot of cleaning options out there so pick what is right for you. Soap and water go a long way to remove dirt and can clean other places bacteria and viruses like to hide, but to truly disinfect you need a specific substance.
The CDC recommends looking for products that are certified by the EPA to be effective against SARS-CoV-2. Most products that contain bleach, ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, or other strong chemicals can sterilize to some degree, but be sure any cleaning substance you use is on the EPA’s list to know if it is a disinfectant. Most EPA-certified disinfectants will have their certification on the container, but not all. Follow the instructions on the container, usually disinfectants have to remain on the surface for a few minutes.
Look for the EPA registration number and enter it in their tool online to see if the product can disinfect and how to best use it.
Good spots to clean might include chair backs, counter tops, tables, desks, toilets, light switches, doorknobs, refrigerator door handles, favorite toys, phones, keyboards, or computer mouses. Don’t forget outside spots like your steering wheel or bike handles. During the day take time to think about what you’re touching and if it’s on the priority list.
It’s important to note that you should not use the disinfectants on your skin, or ingest them. They are just for inanimate surfaces, so do a thorough job on yourself with your preferred skincare products.
Coming and going
If you live with other people, talk to them about the CDC’s guidelines and get an idea of where they plan to go and how they plan to follow the guidelines. If they need help, give them an extra mask or remind them to stay at least six feet away from other people.
Though it is unlikely that Covid-19 can spread via clothing, separate your functional outside clothes and your comfortable inside clothes. Most detergents and hot water above 167 degrees can kill viruses. But not only can removing your outside clothes help to avoid bringing in viruses, you’ll also help to control dirt, allergens, bacteria, and many other things best left outside. Even if you feel healthy, assume you can still spread the disease.
If you are also doing your personal cleaning after your day is over, you can remove your outside clothes, shower off your outside dirt, then change into inside clothes. This is a great way to reduce infectious agents in the home.
When bringing in groceries from outside, the CDC doesn’t recommend disinfecting everything but just following their usual clean, separate, cook, chill guidelines for food safety, which you may already be doing. They do recommend washing your hands after every trip outside- to the grocery store, the mailbox, the porch to pick up delivery food, or anywhere else. Use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol afterward to complete the disinfection. Studies have shown that more frequent hand washing results in less spread of less respiratory infection. Washing your hands ten times a day will do more to keep you healthy than washing five times a day.
Caring for those in your home
Though the CDC has extensive disinfection rules for pharmacies, if you are a vulnerable individual or one lives in your home, the containers of any medication they take should be cleaned as they come in the house. Vulnerable people should, unfortunately, refrain from touching people who went outside or objects that have been outside. Even if you feel healthy, assume you can still spread the virus.
If someone in your household becomes sick, even if they don’t have symptoms of Covid-19, they should stay home and ideally stay in their own room or space. At home, it is best for them to use their own bathroom if possible or clean the bathroom after they use it. Regularly clear out any airborne particles by opening a window or using an air purifier. The same goes for any time they spend in the kitchen or common areas, it’s best to clean the surfaces and the air immediately after they are done using the space.
If someone you live with is infected with Covid-19, the symptoms will most likely last for a few days. Limit contact with them and wear a mask if you’re in the same room. Use gloves if you’re touching any of their things, including while washing their dishes with hot water. Do not share any personal items with them. Do not shake their laundry out, immediately put their dirty laundry in the washing machine and use the hottest setting when washing. A sick person’s laundry can be washed with other people’s laundry. Use a lined trash can for all trash. Wash your hands after caring for the sick person or cleaning up after them. Follow the CDC guidelines to know when it is safe to go back outside.
The CDC recommends watching for the following symptoms, if any of them occur, seek emergency medical attention:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
These are not the only symptoms that may require hospitalization.
Also, do not only think about others- take care of yourself, as well. Monitor yourself for any signs of infection. Make sure your internet is working well so you can connect with friends, stay informed, be entertained, and participate in work or school. Call your service provider, upgrade your system, or just read about any other tips you can find. Reach out to your friends and family or just go to your favorite site to chat. Loneliness is not healthy and much more prevalent than Covid.
How to go outside
Going outside is very important. The sun provides us with vitamin D and fresh air does wonders for the mood. Following the CDC guidelines when outside is fairly easy, particularly when you choose activities such as hiking, biking, or anything else in wide, open spaces where there is plenty of distance for everyone. These activities are much safer than being indoors with other people since viruses rarely spread outdoors.
In supermarkets, hardware stores, and other businesses that serve the public, be sure to wear your mask. Also keep in mind that shorter trips indoors are better and result in less chance of anyone contracting disease.
It will be difficult to avoid touching things others have touched so be sure to wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face. Try to rely on delivery services, but if you need to go out consider leaving small children at home when you run errands, they are more likely to explore by touching surfaces that may harbor viruses. If you do have people in your car, keep the windows open to maintain airflow. Use the bathroom before you leave and bring water with you so you won’t be tempted to use public facilities. Learn how to stock your pantry with a two-week supply to avoid having to go out again.
It’s a great idea to carry hand sanitizer with you to use before and after visiting a store. Feel comfortable sterilizing surfaces outside the home such as door handles or anything else in common use. Your fellow shoppers and the store’s employees will be perfectly happy to see you doing so.
How to go back to work
Your employer should be spearheading a plan to roll out as employees who don’t telework start to return to their former physical stations, and if you are an employer you’ve probably already started this plan.
The workplace is a potentially high-risk environment as people who were sheltering in place separately come together again. Covid-19 spreads primarily through density of population, or people being close to each other. Everyone can benefit from knowing why different measures have been put in place, this allows employees to help stop a workplace from being an epicenter of infection. As with the home, the CDC or the WHO is the best place to find information.
Changes to the building
If you are an employer or an employee responsible for your business’s facilities, there are a few tips to keep in mind as you allow people back in. They involve tasks like making sure HVAC systems are properly maintained to provide adequate ventilation and windows are available to open. Airflow is vital to keep the air free of infectious particles, otherwise potentially infectious particles can linger in the air for hours. Consider portable air purifiers that have virus-killing capability since most HVAC systems are only designed to provide ventilation, not to actually clean the air.
- Cleaning supplies. Are readily available, labeled, and that employees that have been trained how to use them. Signage describing proper cleaning techniques can accompany any stores of supplies.
- Desks, chairs, and furniture. These can be moved to encourage social distancing. Desks might be configured in a checkerboard pattern with half of the desks unoccupied or absent. Common furniture will likely be removed entirely, and common areas may be closed for the foreseeable future. As an employer, you can reduce the chairs in spaces to limit the size of gatherings. As an employee, don’t move chairs from place to place. Wipe down any shared spaces like conference tables and chairs after use.
- Room capacity. Overall, a good goal is to reduce the building’s capacity. The less people present means less possible transmission from person to person. Meeting rooms can no longer be crammed full of people. A good gauge of safe occupancy is to divide the room’s square footage by the square of the social distance required. So a 250 square foot conference room divided by the square of 6 is 250 divided by 36, or no more than seven people. Keep in mind that six feet is just a good rule, infectious particles can travel further than that and can linger in the air for up to 14 minutes. So when sharing space, the most distance is best.
- Common items. Everyone using the same whiteboard markers, coffee makers, or office supplies could add more vectors for diseases spread, and employees may have to bring them from home or keep them at their desks. Along the same lines, printer and copier use can be kept to a minimum and ideally disinfected periodically.
- Entrance screening. Simple questions about symptoms, a spray of disinfectant on the hands, and even a forehead temperature check might become required to enter the building.
- Reducing airborne particles. An air purifier that can kill viruses is also a great idea since airborne droplets exhaled during speech and breathing can linger in the air and carry Covid-19 or other respiratory infections. For large open spaces, check the recommended room size on the purifier and have enough to cover everywhere there are desks or places where people will be. Place them so their outlets are near the breathing areas of the occupants and their inlets are clear of any obstructions. This may require a table or stool.
- Do research. New technologies will become available to help us through this pandemic. Devices that use safe UV light to disinfect phones or other items are easy to find now. Water-proof keyboards and mice can be easily cleaned. There are a multitude of metal hook tools that can open doors without contact and also be used to interact with touchscreens. Electronic body counters can tell you how many people are in a room and if it’s safe to add any more. A simple traffic counter at the front door and help to monitor the amount of people coming in and out everyday. Smart building systems can control HVAC, lighting, entry, and other automated systems to reduce the number of high-touch surfaces in a building.
Employers can consider only allowing employees who need to be on-site to return. Employees who don’t need to figure out childcare, don’t rely on public transit, and actually feel comfortable spending time with people outside their homes may be asked to return. Anyone who has any problems around these issues should be afforded the flexibility to continue working under shelter-in-place conditions and employers should abide by the new emergency paid leave rules.
Those of us who do take public transit can wear a mask and gloves if possible at all times. Like in other public spaces, don’t be afraid to do a little sterilizing of any surfaces you want to touch.
Expect a few employees to be designated to learn and become experts in a specific area of pandemic life. Your office is likely to have new experts on Covid-19, quarantine, personal protective gear, infection control from deliveries, or other relevant topics.
Just like at home, employees can disinfect their high-touch areas. Regular cleaning of desks and tables can help to reduce transmission.
Perhaps most important is paying attention to mental and emotional health. It has been hard on all of us living in quarantine, and we are now expected to live in a world with constant bad news and concern from all angles. Do not go into the office if you do not feel comfortable, and keep in communication with your employer to voice any concerns you have. Employers have a responsibility to listen and share any information their employees would like.
How to keep up to date
The Covid-19 situation is constantly changing as new science comes out and governments design better and better plans for mitigation. Keep an eye on your local news to know what is happening in your area so you are ready to shift your strategy when necessary. Remember that we all have to do our part and follow as many precautions as we can to keep ourselves and our communities safe. Be kind but insistent that the people you spend time with do the same. Nobody wants to be the person who made someone sick.
Keep an eye on this blog to learn more about the science of airborne disease transmission and all we’re doing at Molekule to minimize this aspect of the threat.